Ross Clark

The EU’s petulance is turning its Galileo satellite into a white elephant

The EU's petulance is turning its Galileo satellite into a white elephant
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Moves by the EU to try to stop British armed forces from accessing the Galileo satellite system, and to prevent British companies from bidding for work on it, are, as one senior UK official told the FT, ‘outrageous’. Britain has contributed 12 per cent of the costs. The EU’s argument that to allow British involvement would be a security risk are perverse, given that China, Israel, Ukraine and Morocco are participating in the project. Does anyone really think that relations between post-Brexit Britain and EU will sink so low that European governments will consider us more of a security risk than China?

Galileo isn’t principally a military system at all. It is designed more as a civilian system, to be used by aircraft, trains, buses, motorists hikers and anyone else. It is designed for military use in an emergency, but the prime motivation behind it was to provide an alternative to the Global Position System (GPS) set up by the US. That was conceived as a military system but one which civilian users were later allowed to use. The point about Galileo was to provide a service which was not at the mercy of a future US government deciding to reverse that decision – something which would leave, for example, European drivers floundering as their satnavs ceased to function.

Yet however outrageous the EU’s attempts to block British armed forces, the blunt reality is that Galileo is a poor advert for EU-led co-operation. The GPS system became fully operational in 1995, after two decades of development. Galileo has yet to become operational at all. It is years behind schedule and billions over-budget – currently estimated to cost 10 billion Euros. And when it does finally become available there is no guarantee that commercial users will want to pay to use it. They might decide just to carry on using GPS, making Galileo a large white elephant.    

Indeed, in threatening to exclude the British military, the EU is throwing away the whole commercial case for using Galileo: that it will protect users from having the system turned off at whim by the US government. The US has, to date, shown no inclination to do this. The EU, by contrast, has adopted a petulant attitude, telling us: dare to leave the EU and we’ll freeze you out of the satellite system you helped pay for. If I were a company manufacturing satnavs, mobile phones or whatever, I would be watching with concern.