Countdown to Brexit: 90 days – No place in space for the UK

The UK has made significant financial and technical contributions to the European space programmes over many years.  A report by the EU Scrutiny Committee, published on 24 December, now casts doubts on the UK’s eligibility - post-Brexit - to participate in, or reap the full benefits from, our investment in three EU space programmes.


There are, today, three EU Space Programmes:

  • Galileo: an EU satellite navigation and positioning system.  It will provide high precision position, navigation and timing services to the public – to replace the aging and American-owned “GPS”. Galileo ‘Public Regulated Service’ (PRS) is an encrypted version of the same service intended for government-authorised users, such as the military, police and border control.

  • Copernicus: an EU ‘Earth Observation’ programme, designed to deliver global, near real-time measurements of the Earth using a series of satellites called ‘Sentinels’.

  • Space Surveillance and Tracking: a ground-based orbital tracking system, designed to track space debris and help protect space assets by preventing collisions.  Under the new proposals, this would be expanded to include other areas of space situational awareness, including space weather and near-earth objects.

For the next EU budget round, 2021–2027, the European Commission proposes to establish an “EU Space Programme” – to pool and share secure satellite communications capacities and capabilities across EU Agencies and EU Member States. The proposed shared budget is:

  • €9.7 billion for Galileo;

  • €5.8 billion for Copernicus; and

  • €0.5 billion for SST.

UK - limits of participation post-Brexit

The EU Scrutiny Committee looked at whether, post-Brexit, the UK – as a designated ‘third country’ can continue involvement in the Programme.

UK participation in the space programmes would have to be negotiated separately between the UK and the EU within the established boundaries for third country participation:

Non-EU countries may participate in the EU Space Programme where a third country negotiates specific arrangements with the EU to do so.  UK involvement in elements of the EU Space Programmes could therefore in principle be negotiated.  It may be possible to negotiate access to the ‘service outputs’ – for instance Galileo and SST.

The strict approach to third country involvement where activities have a security dimension, restricts contracts not just to EU-established entities but to entities which are ‘effectively controlled’ from within the EU.  This could limit the level of industrial participation the UK could negotiate when it becomes a third country.

Restrictions on third country involvement in the Galileo PRS mean that it would not be possible for the EU to grant the UK similar levels of participation in the PRS element of the Programme as other EU Member States.

UK Government Response and No-Deal technical notice

In December 2018 the Prime Minister’s Office issued a statement that: “the UK would no longer seek to use the Galileo PRS for defence or critical national infrastructure after Brexit - and that the UK would instead explore options to build its own Global Navigation Satellite System that can help guide military drones, run energy networks and provide essential services for civilian smart phones” and “work with the US to continue accessing its trusted GPS system”.

In the event of a “no-deal” Brexit, the UK and UK stakeholders could no longer play any part in the development of Galileo or European Geostationary Navigation Overlay programmes. UK businesses, academics and researchers currently contracted or expecting to carry out contracts on these programmes should “contact the relevant authorities to make sure that arrangements are in place to comply with the conditions of the contract and to avoid possible penalties”.

The technical notice acknowledges that the UK will no longer be able to participate in the Copernicus programme as an EU member state and will have no role in how it is run: “UK-based businesses, academics and researchers will be unable to bid for future Copernicus contracts tendered through the EU, or through any other process using EU procurement rules.”

Impact on UK overseas territories

In October 2018, the UK Secretary of State for Defence, Gavin Williamson, MP, informed the EU that it would be prevented from basing ground stations for the Galileo satellite in the Falklands, Diego Garcia or Ascension Island - unless Britain’s demands for continued participation were met.

A month later the European Commission responded to this pressure with a proposal to relocate the Galileo ground stations currently located in the Falkland Islands and Ascension Island.

UK Position with 90 days until Brexit - with or without a deal

The general impasse in negotiations over UK government and business involvement in the future EU Space Programme prompted the Prime Minister, Theresa May to make a statement at the end of November: “I have been clear from the outset that the UK will remain firmly committed to Europe’s collective security after Brexit.  But given the Commission’s decision to bar the UK from being fully involved in developing all aspects of Galileo it is only right that we find alternatives.

“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.”

This remains position to date.  We shall see what the next 90 days brings.

John ShuttleworthComment