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Regulatory Review: European Space Policy: Another Step Forward

By | February 1, 2002

      by Gerry Oberst

      The European Union took another step toward setting space policy when, in early December 2001, the European Commission submitted its latest communication on this topic to the Council and Parliament.

      This report, entitled “Towards a European Space Policy,” is at least the fifth such communication since 1988. The latest paper emphasizes better coordination between European political institutions and the European Space Agency (ESA), with the goal of moving forward with the Joint Task Force that was set up between the European Commission and ESA.

      The bulk of the communication is a report from that Joint Task Force, but the introductory paper itself stresses the need for space issues to achieve their “full political legitimacy.” This requires even more cooperation between ESA and the EU, as well as bringing space issues “to the attention of the highest political level in Europe,” –the Council and Parliament.

      In this respect, the December 2001 communication matches some aspects of the January 2001 report on U.S. space policy–the so-called “Rumsfeld Report”–that we described in this column in March 2001. The Rumsfeld report also recommended leadership at the highest levels. It called for the president and senior officials to shape the U.S. domestic and international legal and regulatory environment for space to ensure national security interests are secure. It also sought to enhance the competitiveness of the commercial sector and effectiveness of the civil space sector.

      The Rumsfeld report says that space activity must be defined as a “fundamental national interest of the United States.” The Commission space policy paper outlines that space must become an “integral component” of the EU’s core policies. The parallel in thinking is notable, but the emphasis of the European papers is of necessity different.

      One palpable difference is the fixation in the Commission paper on the “Galileo” program, designed as a European counterpart to the existing Global Positioning System (GPS) operated by the United States. The successful implementation of this new satellite navigation and position locating system was not ensured at the time the Commission’s communication was released, due to reluctance by some European national governments to fund the hugely expensive program without active involvement of industry.

      The Galileo experience points to another difference in the two space policies. While the United States mainly devises a “top down” approach with support of the president and national officials, Europe faces another kind of challenge in coordinating among its many national governments. Thus, the Commission paper speaks of creating “shared values,” showing “coherence” with third countries and trying to build “a more influential Union on the world stage” while avoiding work in a dispersed and fragmented manner. The paper even speaks of possible changes to the EU Treaty over the long-term to develop further European space policy.

      In addition to this topic of the political dimensions of space policy, the Joint Task Force report also discusses policies towards enhancing scientific knowledge and reaping benefits for markets and society from space activities.

      As part of the market benefits, the Joint Task Force first addresses the Galileo program, perhaps operational by 2008, then describes a proposed system for Global Monitoring for Environment and Security (GMES), also planned for 2008. Then it takes into account the existing satellite-based communications industry, which garnered revenues of $27 billion in 2000 and delivered satellite broadcasting to about 100 million European homes that year, either directly to home or through cable distribution systems connected to master satellite antenna systems.

      The language on satellite communications is encouraging, and acknowledges that the majority of future industry growth will come from interactive multimedia, mobile voice and data, and digital audio radio systems. The Joint Task Force calls on Europe to foster the development of satellite communications to provide advanced services, as well as studying potential value-added services from integration of European space infrastructure in telecoms, navigation and Earth observation. It also calls for ESA to take a larger role in EU research and development programs related to satellite communications.

      One item not in this report, which was reflected in the Rumsfeld report, is a call for more expeditious licensing procedures for commercial and civil sectors, and more attention on the increasing delay in coordinating the use of radio spectrum at the international level. At least the Joint Task Force recommends that a joint consultation be held with industry, which perhaps will provide a platform for the satellite communications industry to maintain their call for optimized regulatory approaches across Europe.

      The Commission communication maintains that space in Europe has entered a new phase. It argues that space activities have evolved from pure research endeavors to offering a unique and critical technology for Europe. As part of a continuing effort to develop a framework for cooperation between the European Commission and ESA, this latest paper is another step, however small, towards a coherent European space policy.

      Gerry Oberst is a partner in the Brussels office of the Hogan & Hartson law firm. His email address is

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