Author: Peter Teffer
Posted: November 30 2016
The European Commission told member states on Tuesday (29 November) that the EU will only get involved in space exploration if there are clear benefits to EU citizens and businesses.
“We want to maximise the benefits of space for society and for the EU economy,” said industry commissioner Elzbieta Bienkowska at a meeting of industry ministers in Brussels, presenting a strategy paper about space.
“We underlined it everywhere and to everybody. This is the most important point for us. We are not exploring space.”
The ministers’ debate did not lead to a formal reaction to the paper, but Slovak minister for science Peter Plavcan, who chaired the meeting, said conclusions would be adopted in the first half of 2017.
“Ministers agreed that the document is a well-balanced basis for our future strategy in this area,” said Plavcan.
Then again, the commission’s strategy paper was general enough that there could be something to everyone’s liking.
It includes many phrases that are hard to argue with, like: “The space sector needs to be better connected to other policies and economic areas at EU level and in all member states.”
The strategy paper showed that the commission is taking a soft approach to what for many decades has been a zone which was exclusively dealt with at the national level.
Many of the proposed commission actions are introduced by words like “promote”, “facilitate”, “stimulate”, and “engage in dialogue”.
It is only since the Lisbon Treaty went into force in December 2009 that space is an EU policy area.
Under the commission’s previous leadership, it looked like the EU would play an active role in space exploration.
Less than two months before the Lisbon Treaty went into force, then commission chief Jose Manuel Barroso said “space exploration is important to the EU”.
But his successor, Jean-Claude Juncker, has a different idea.
His administration advocates that the EU should leave space exploration to national governments and to the European Space Agency (ESA), which is an intergovernmental organisation separate from the EU.
“The strategy builds on the principle of complementarity with other European actors, such as the member states and the European Space Agency,” an EU official who could not be named told EUobserver, adding that the area of space exploration is “primarily the role of ESA and member states”.
This has left some disappointed.
Where is the curiosity?
At almost the same time as ministers were discussing the strategy on Tuesday, space was also being discussed in the European Parliament.
British centre-left MEP Clare Moody praised a presentation by ESA director Johann-Dietrich Woerner.
“The three words that stood out for me in your presentation, were: curiosity, inspiration, and participation,” she said, adding that these elements should have been more present in the EU strategy.
Moody noted that the strategy focused a lot on space-based applications being put to use on Earth, “looking down on us from space”.
“I think there needs to be more focus on us looking out, beyond ourselves, out into space,” said Moody.
Her centre-left colleague from Germany, MEP Constanze Krehl, told EUobserver she thought the EU should educate young people on how space applications affect their daily lives.
‘Not very concrete’
Krehl will write a report for the parliament that will be an official response to the commission’s strategy paper, which she said was “not very concrete”.
“My first question mark when I read this was: how can we make this more concrete?” she said.
The paper said the commission will “step up support to space entrepreneurs through EU funding programmes”, but failed to attach a figure to that commitment.
At a press conference following the ministerial Tuesday, EU’s research commissioner Carlos Moedas could not say how much money exactly would be spent extra.
The new Space strategy for Europe follows a 2011 commission document, produced under Barroso, titled Towards a Space Strategy for the European Union that Benefits its Citizens.
Krehl said she had not read the 2011 document yet, so she could not compare the two.
“I think what’s new is that we are asking for leadership in space policy,” she said.
Competition from Silicon Valley
According to Moedas, one of the new aspects is that the EU needs to integrate the digital world into space applications. He referred implicitly to the increasing trend of US companies that venture into space.
“Companies that used to be at the forefront in Europe now are challenged by digital companies on the other side of the Atlantic,” said Moedas.
EUobserver asked the Portuguese commissioner if he, as a science enthusiast, was disappointed that space exploration was ruled out as EU policy.
Moedas noted that the EU is still funding what is called fundamental science – projects that do not have an immediate apparent practical use – and that included space-related projects.
“Not because they are space, but because they are the best,” he said.