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EU: Officials Seek Greater Autonomy In Space Program

Brussels, 11 November 2003 (RFE/RL) � The European Commission today adopted an EU Space Action Plan, which says the bloc needs to invest more in space research to both secure global autonomy and boost growth and competitiveness.

The plan was presented jointly today in Brussels by Philippe Busquin, the EU's research commissioner, and Jean-Jacques Dordain, head of the Paris-based European Space Agency.

Dordain told RFE/RL that the plan is meant to guarantee EU autonomy in a field that is increasingly important to citizens' daily lives. "For a lot of issues -- [for example], for security, for environment -- free access to data is a key. The only way to have free access to data is to have your autonomy," he said. "Because if you have no autonomy to get these data, how can you be sure that these data are free, without any constraint? I think there [are] a lot of examples where Europe has regretted not [having] free access to data."

Dordain said the EU can currently trust no global partner, including the United States, to provide space-related services "free of constraint."

The United States has been particularly concerned by the EU's plan to launch its Galileo satellite program within the next five years. Washington says the EU should continue to use U.S. facilities, which -� although controlled by the military -� are free of charge. U.S. officials have said that putting Galileo's technology in the civilian domain could harm the fight against terrorism.

But the European Commission today confirmed it is seeking 3.2 billion euros ($3.7 billion) in funding for Galileo. The EU also recently signed a cooperation agreement with China under which Beijing will contribute 200 million euros to the program. Another agreement is being negotiated with Russia.

The European Space Agency (ESA), which among other projects runs the European satellite-launch program in French Guyana, is currently not part of the institutional framework of the EU, as two of its members, Switzerland and Norway, are not part of the bloc. Conversely, two EU member states, Luxembourg and Greece, are not members of the ESA, although Greece is likely to join the agency next year. Among the EU accession states, Hungary, Poland, and the Czech Republic also cooperate with the ESA.

Space policy is part of the ongoing constitutional debate within the EU, and the adoption of a "European space policy" by EU member states would mean bringing the ESA under greater EU control. Commissioner Busquin today argued that a consolidated EU space policy is necessary if the EU wants to avoid running the risk of declining as a space power. He said EU space-technology companies risk losing markets as well as critical knowledge and skills if the situation is not addressed.

A background document released by the commission today says the EU space-technology sector employs over 30,000 people in 2,000 companies. Space-based facilities are essential for a wide range of sectors, including environment, transportation, and telecommunications. The document estimates that the global market for satellite-navigation services could amount to 100 billion euros by 2010, adding that every euro invested in space applications would generate a turnover of 7-8 euros.

The paper says the commission wants member states to agree to an annual expenditure growth rate of up to 4.6 percent on space technology. However, both Busquin and Dordain today admitted it will be difficult to persuade cash-strapped EU governments to spend that much. This year, combined EU and ESA funding for space research comes to a little more than 5 billion euros ($5.8 billion). The U.S. space agency NASA receives nearly $15 billion annually.