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Expert View

EU satellite spat prime example of Brexit unintelligence

by David Hannay | 08.05.2018

David Hannay is a member of the House of Lords and former UK ambassador to the EU and UN.

The angry debate over Britain’s future involvement in the EU’s Galileo space project, into which the UK has already sunk more than £1 billion, is a perfect example of how the Brexit process is creating more problems than it resolves – and of how it scrambles the brains of otherwise intelligent actors on both sides.

On one side you have European Commission officials insisting that the UK, as a non- member state, must be deprived of access to  sensitive parts of the Galileo project, including participation in their construction.

On the other side, you have the government apparently doing its best to delay Galileo and to proceed with a British-only competitor, egged on by the usual Brexit claque. Defence secretary Gavin Williamson has revealed “defence scientists and military experts” are already scoping out the possibility for a new British system which the Telegraph reports could be worth £3 billion.

On the face of it both sides seem to be sliding towards what can only be described as Mutually Assured Damage, a variant on the acronym familiar to participants in the Cold War’s nuclear confrontation.

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Is this avoidable? In a sensible world you would have thought so. Does it really make sense to cut the UK out of the full participation in Galileo it currently enjoys? This is on pretty spurious security grounds, given that we are a NATO ally of many of the EU participants in the project.

There are no doubt stacks of legal advisers and institutional ayatollahs in Brussels busy marshalling arguments as to why continued full UK participation is unthinkable after Brexit. But political leaders are there to test such arguments against scientific and political realities and not simply to succumb to them.

As to the “Britain only” idea, it may (just about) pass muster as a negotiating ploy – even if its credibility, like so many other “no deal” outcomes, is not great. Where precisely is the money to come from when the government is strapped for cash? And will the market bear and reward another competitor with the US’s GPS, the Russian scheme and Galileo?

In any case, the basis for avoiding a completely unnecessary row is already at hand. The prime minister’s proposal, in both her Florence and Munich speeches, for a new security treaty between the UK and the other 27 EU members, surely provides the framework needed to avoid the security problems which have surfaced over Galileo? But what has happened to that proposal? Where have the negotiations got to, if anywhere? On that the silence is deafening.

Before allowing the dispute over Galileo to further poison an already pretty fraught atmosphere, would it not be wiser to put that proposed framework to proper use? Failure to do so will only add one more item to the already long list of the unnecessary costs of Brexit.

Edited by Luke Lythgoe

One Response to “EU satellite spat prime example of Brexit unintelligence”

  • No, there’s no way that Britain can be allowed to take part in PRS, the ‘innter sanctum’ of Galileo.

    You say that Britain should be allowed because it is in NATO.
    – But Norway is in NATO and would much like to be included. It’s also in the EEA which is closer to the EU than the UK government is proposing Britain will be.
    – And the USA is part of NATO, but it doesn’t allow European countries into the secret part of the GPS system, neither is the USA allowed access to PRS, although it much desires it.

    Why do you think that is? Do you know what PRS is all about?

    For one thing, it’s protected against a cyber attack against the satellite systems which have been so crucial to our our society’s operation. Not only is it more accurate than the public Galileo offering; that system could very plausibly be blocked. PRS would be very difficult or impractical to block because of the broad spectrum in which it operates. Imagine what would happen if – say – Russia blocked the satellite system relied upon by military drones, military jets, tanks on the ground; not to mention if it were able to impede our energy supplies, search and rescue, etc.

    A key driver in the EU developing Galileo (and PRS) was to protect against a possible future where the EU fell-out with the USA. Now correct me if I’m wrong, but in leaving the EU:
    – Britain is distancing itself from our European partners. At times, it seems, quite aggressively so.
    – At the same time, there’s talk of the UK aligning itself more closely with the USA; with people now in the government who believe it has more in common with the USA than Europe. Do I speak the truth?

    We also know that “from April 2018, all new type approved vehicles sold in Europe will be Galileo capable as part of a requirement to comply with the EU’s eCall emergency response system regulation”. Apparently vehicles will be able to issue a distress ping, which will be communicated by satellites to ground stations and direct assistance.

    But that capability also implies that all vehicles in Europe will be able to identify their position to a central authority: to that extent it’s two-way communication. All it requires is for the devices in vehicles to be triggered to give such a ping and the system bandwidth to deal with the result, and we have a real-time monitoring system for all or particular traffic. I wonder if, for example, there’s a mechanism for triggering a ping from a stolen car fitted with the device. That would imply there’s some remote means of getting a particular transmitter to identify itself.

    But we’ve only talked about bits of PRS that are in the public domain. Whatever capabilities PRS has today, they are apparently as nothing to the capabilities on the drawing-board for tomorrow. That’s surely what we understand from the Comission’s document about post-2019 PRS plans: “If the commission shared this information with the UK (which will become a third country) it would irretrievably compromise the integrity of certain elements of these systems for many years after the withdrawal of the UK”.

    If you wanted further evidence of how critical PRS (or a system much like it) is to the UK, see how quickly the government has come together in a rare display of unity to declare that if it cannot be part of PRS, it will build a system for itself!

    There is absolutely no way that the UK, outside the EU, will be part of PRS. Rethink your idea. It’s not going to happen.