June 24, 2016 News

Will Brexit Lead to Spexit?

With Britain choosing to leave the EU, it is still unclear what Brexit will mean for Britain's role in space exploration and European space programs.

Brexit
Brexit

It's official – on June 23rd, the UK has voted to leave the European Union. The leaving process is expected to be gradual and take about two years. In light of this historic vote, it is yet unclear what the consequences will be for the British role in the European space program.

The British scientific community has largely opposed Brexit, with a March poll in Natureshowing that an overwhelming 83% were against leaving the EU. According to an open letter published in The Times and signed by 150 Cambridge academics, including Stephen Hawking, leaving the EU would be a “disaster for U.K. science and universities.”

One of the main concerns in research and development is funding. The EU had budgeted approximately €120 billion to support research and innovation projects from 2014 to 2020, with much of that funding intended to benefit Britain. According to the UK Office of National Statistics, between 2007 and 2013, the UK had contributed an estimated €5.4 billion to EU research and development, while receiving €8.8 billion in direct EU funding for research, development, and innovation, according to a 2016 Royal Society report.
Many issues remain unclear in other aspects of the space program, including that of Britain's relationship with the European Space Agency. Over three quarters of the funds Britain spends on space programs is sent to ESA, which is not a European Union organization. As noted by ESA Director-General Johann-Dietrich Woerner, there is no requirement for ESA members to be part of the EU (both Switzerland and Norway are ESA, but not EU members). Therefore, in theory, Brexit should not have a significant impact on British ESA membership.

At the same time, some ESA programs are joint initiatives with the EU – the most well-known one being the €4.3 billion Copernicus program. The Copernicus project provides data on issues ranging from climate change to oil drilling opportunities. Once in space, the satellites are owned by the EU.

Galileo positioning, navigation and timing network also presents a problem after Brexit. While Galileo is owned by the European Commission, its prime contractor for payload electronics is the British Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd. (SSTL). Twenty-two Galileo satellites were made by German OHB SE before Brexit, but it is now unclear what will happen with the future Galileo satellites. The deadline set by ESA for industry bids on the next Galileo series is July 19 th. OHB Chief Executive Marco R. Fuchs has said his company is bidding the same OHB-SSTL team that won the previous order, although he concedes the consequences of Brexit have been a concern. Norway is able to participate in the Galileo program after having signed a security treaty with the EU – but as Britain's role in the program has so far been central, it is yet unclear whether such a treaty would be sufficient to retain its place in the Galileo initiative.
The Norwegian experience also highlights some of the other issues that may soon be faced by Britain. So far, Britain has actively participated in the Public Regulated Service, which provides protected, encrypted signals reserved for military and government customers. Norway does not have access to this service, even with the security treaty in place.

From the economic side, the British space industry has been growing much faster than the British economy in recent years, with various companies both in the EU and the US and Canada creating British divisions to get access to ESA and European Union space project funding. The British share of global space commerce had been expected to reach 10% by 2023 (currently at 6.5%), but it is now unclear how Brexit will affect both the British market share and investments from other countries.

Some of the other questions that are being raised after Brexit concern satellite fleet operators. French Eutelsat houses its Quantum flexible-payload satellite program in Britain – the program is funded by British money from ESA. The company's Broadband for Africa project (partnered with Facebook), is also located in Britain, as is Eutelsat’s Global Government division.

Overall, the June 23rd vote raises multiple questions concerning various aspects of the British role in European space programs and so far the answers are lacking. As Britain prepares to leave the European Union, many issues concerning its presence in European space programs will need to be evaluated and resolved.

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