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EU: Ministers Back Galileo Satellite Navigation System

Brussels, 26 March 2002 (RFE/RL) -- European Union transport ministers today agreed to fund a satellite navigation network which they say could surpass the existing U.S. Global Positioning System (GPS) by 2008.

The ministers agreed that the EU would contribute 450 million euros to the four-year development of the Galileo system. The EU had already authorized 100 million euros. The European Space Agency has pledged 550 million euros.

Airbus, Thales, and Eutelstat are among the aeronautical and electronics firms backing Galileo. The firms say the project will create more than 100,000 jobs.

The ministers also decided that the project headquarters will be in Brussels and an operating company from the private sector will take over the project in 2006. They expect the 30 satellites to be operational by 2008.

EU officials today said Galileo would have serve a "dual" purpose, being intended for both the civilian and military spheres.

Spain's Transport Minister Francisco Alvarez-Cascos, who was leading today's meeting for the current Spanish EU presidency, said defense policy was an "essential service" in democratic countries. He said there was no reason why military applications should not be included in Galileo's list of tasks, given that EU member states were guided by the principles of the rule of law. He went on to say that without Galileo, the EU risked remaining "subordinated" to the United States and thus only "partially sovereign."

"It is not an issue of civil or military use. It is the issue of whether the EU is a sovereign institution in such a strategic matter as the Galileo satellite navigation system."

Alvarez said the EU would also miss an "entire step" in research and development without the Galileo project.

EU Transport Commissioner Loyola de Palacio said Galileo would not only be an opportunity for the EU, but would also offer a "choice for others." She did not specify which countries she had in mind. She said Galileo would be compatible with the U.S. GPS. A European Commission background document says that using both GPS and Galileo in a coordinated fashion would offer "real advantages" such as improved precision and security in the instance that one of the systems goes down.

However, the document says the EU considers Galileo superior to GPS, saying that in a primarily nonmilitary application, most services Galileo will provide will come with the legal guarantees of operation required by modern businesses. The document adds that GPS services have sometimes become unavailable without prior warning. The EU also says Galileo will provide a higher degree of precision than GPS, and will be more reliable.

The commission background documents also say U.S. fears of the technology falling in the hands of its enemies are unfounded, as Galileo will incorporate "all the necessary protective security features."