Ashley Fox is an MEP for South West England, and is the leader of Britain’s Conservative MEPs.
If Britain’s Brexit negotiators are ever tempted to look to the heavens in frustration at the EU’s intransigence and inflexibility, I fear they will find no relief.
Some 23,222 kilometres above our heads are 22 satellites comprising a new, world leading navigation system which has, in recent weeks, come to encapsulate many of the difficulties surrounding the Brexit talks.
The Galileo project was launched in 2003 to provide a European alternative to America’s GPS and Russia’s GLONASS satellite navigation systems. When operational, it will provide users with both a quicker service than either GPS or GLONASS and more accurate location information, having a margin of error of less than one metre compared to several metres for GPS.
Crucially, it also includes a highly encrypted element known as Public Regulated Service (PRS) which emits signals that cannot be jammed and is designed for use by the military, emergency services, and critical government infrastructure. The US, despite initially opposing the whole project, is now attempting to negotiate access to PRS.
Britain has played a major role in developing Galileo, providing 12 per cent of the funding, amounting to £1.2 billion, and a huge chunk of the expertise. The satellites (by 2021 it is hoped 30 will be in orbit, 24 to run the system plus six spares) are assembled by Surrey Satellite Technology of Guildford alongside the German company OHB System. Ground control is run by Airbus from Portsmouth, and there are tracking stations in the Falkland Islands and on Ascension Island.
Now, however, the EU is playing hard ball over our future involvement, saying that Brexit means British companies can no longer bid for security sensitive future work and insisting we will have to apply for access to PRS information. As the US is learning, that process can take years.
Understandably the Government is furious. Greg Clark, the Business Secretary, has suggested Britain may look at establishing its own system and his threat to veto the latest round of contracts for Galileo work led to the matter being postponed at a meeting of the European Space Agency this week.
Ministers are also said to be exploring ways of preventing a transfer of the technology needed to encrypt the PRS system from Britain to Thales in France.
Yet we should not be surprised at the EU’s stance. Time and again throughout the Brexit process Brussels has insisted on a literal interpretation of the rules, often for political reasons, sometimes for perceived economic advantage but always because that is the bloc’s default setting.
It is only comfortable operating within known parameters, hence its outright rejection of novel suggestions to tackle the Irish border question and its insistence that our future relationship be based on an existing model.
That is certainly the case with Galileo. Michel Barnier, the EU’s Chief Negotiator, claims the issue is clear cut: the regulations state that security sensitive proprietary information cannot be shared with countries outside the EU. However, this ignores the unique situation we find ourselves in. Theresa May has made an unrestricted offer of continued security assistance and co-operation as part of our post-Brexit relationship with the EU. In these circumstances, to simply treat the UK as any other third country is both perverse and unnecessary.
There will be some commercial advantage for European (mainly French) firms if British companies are frozen out of certain Galileo contracts, but overall the EU is harming itself by not approaching the issue more constructively. The House of Commons’ all-party European Scrutiny Committee concluded that a UK pull-out from Galileo would “disrupt the roll-out of the PRS service, cause further delays and potentially have a detrimental impact on European security.” It would also push up the cost for the remaining partners. No-one wins.
This failure of imagination is deeply ingrained in the EU, and even if political obstacles can be overcome in the coming months on issues ranging from Ireland to future trade, its inability to be creative could still stand in the way of us striking the optimum deal.
I hope Member States may yet demand a change of approach as they see the threat posed to their economies, but we should be prepared for all eventualities and be confident of our ability to adapt. British expertise helped get Galileo off the ground. It will give flight to Brexit too.