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This week’s poll: the Galileo affair


What should be the UK’s response to being shut out of the secure systems of the Galileo satellite constellation?

Prime Minister Theresa May has decided that the UK should pull out of the Galileo project, in which the European Union member states are developing and building a constellation of global navigation satellites. Galileo is a response to the military aspects of the US’s GPS navigation system, and a need for a secure system for navigation that military and emergency services can use safely. However, with Brexit looming next year, the remaining member states have ruled that the UK will not be able to be involved in the development of Galileo’s secure public regulated service (PRS), an encrypted military grade signal, once it is outside the EU. Ironically, the UK was the main developer of much of the PRS. “I cannot let our armed services depend on a system we cannot be sure of. That would not be in our national interest. And as a global player with world-class engineers and steadfast allies around the world, we are not short of options,” the Prime Minister said.

British investment in Galileo amounts to some £1.2bn to date, and if, as Theresa May suggests, the UK’s response is to develop its own sovereign secure global navigation system, some estimates put the projected cost at some £5bn (the total cost of Galileo so far is almost £9bn). The Financial Times quotes a space industry lawyer, Joanne Wheeler, who estimates that excluding the UK will increase project costs further and delay Galileo by at least two years. Ms Wheeler indicates that she believes the UK might expect a £1bn refund from the EU. Sam Gyimah, the universities and science minister in the Department of Business Energy and Industrial Strategy who resigned at the weekend, specifically gave the departure from the Galileo programme as one of the reasons for his resignation.

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(Credit: ESA)

However, the EU 27’s decision to lock out the UK from the secure aspects of Galileo has not been without criticism. Tom Enders, chief executive of Airbus which is building components of the satellites, said on Twitter yesterday that as the UK is one of only two serious military powers in Europe, and excluding it from the project deals a “serious blow to the EU’s common security and defence ambition.” Airbus revealed last week that is relocating 80 jobs to sites in continental Europe to complete its work on Galileo. Also on Twitter, Carl Bildt, former Swedish Prime Minister and currently co-chair of the European Council on foreign relations, said excluding the UK was “a strategic folly of the first order,” and that a solution “must be possible”.

Although concerns over Galileo were apparent even before the 2016 referendum, the severity of the financial penalties and Theresa May’s willingness to walk away from the project seem to have taken many by surprise. We would like to know what Engineer readers believe the UK should do about Galileo. This week we have supplied four options. Should we, as Joanne Wheeler suggests, seek a refund of our investment to date? Should we simply accept the loss as an acceptable cost of leaving the EU, and develop a sovereign navigation system of our own? Should we, as Carl Bildt suggests, press the EU to reconsider this decision in the interests of the project? Or should we, as Theresa May seems to be suggesting, negotiate access to a system operated by one of our other allies?

In this case, we ask respondents not to pick none of the above if they believe the UK should simply stay within the EU. With Parliament’s “meaningful vote” on the EU withdrawal agreement next week, we are planning another poll which will provide that option. This week, we are confining ourselves to the issue of Galileo and the situation as it currently presents itself. Of course, comments and debates are welcome, although we ask readers to familiarise themselves with our guidelines for comments contents before submitting. We will publish the results of this poll on 11 December.

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