Commission seeks “appropriate relations” between EU and ESA
By Isabelle Smets | Monday 19 November 2012
Could the European Space Agency (ESA) eventually become an EU agency? This is a scenario envisaged by the European Commission in a communication published on 14 November, which discusses “appropriate” relations between the EU and the ESA
(1). Links between the ESA and the EU have become stronger in the last few years, but these relations are not always straightforward: with each body functioning according to different rules, as well as the fact that not all EU member states are members of the ESA, and vice versa. It is for these reasons that the Commission published its reflections on the matter, inviting the European Parliament to take part (which means an EP resolution on the issue is due out soon) as well as the Council of Ministers (which will give conclusions). Other scenarios are also on the table, such as simply “improving” the relationship between the two bodies via a kind of institutional status quo, or placing the ESA under the authority of the EU in its capacity as an intergovernmental organisation (similar to the model of the European Defence Agency).
Nonetheless, these are all long-term scenarios, and the Commission has fixed a deadline of 2020-2025. In the meantime, it has promised to develop these ideas in a communication, which will appear before the end of next year.
TWO WAYS OF FUNCTIONING
What is not working today?
Increasingly, the ESA is being given responsibility for the implementation of EU space programmes, for example; the conception, development and purchase of material for the spatial and ground components of Galileo. Currently, the EU relies heavily on the technical expertise of the ESA, to which it delegates a large part of its budget for space policy (the EU is also one of the largest contributors to the ESA). This is all very well, but the management of these funds remains too complex, due to the fact that the two bodies apply different rules (that of ‘just returns’ in the case of the ESA, meaning in relation to the size of the contribution from each state). Moreover, all EU member states are not ESA members
(2) and conversely, Norway and Sweden are members of the ESA, and the agency has a bilateral agreement with Canada. “As the collaboration between the EU and the ESA grows, this asymmetry combined with a voting system where each member state has one vote in the ESA Council and the key decisions within this body are adopted by unanimity gives ESA members, which are not members of the EU, disproportionate leverage over matters that may affect the EU,” explains the Commission. The problem is particularly delicate where security and defence are at stake, which is very often the case with spatial infrastructures.
The Commission also refers to the fact that the ESA has no obligation to be accountable on a political level. “The fact that the ESA as a European agency has no formal link with the European Parliament deprives ESA of the direct link with citizens that any EU policy enjoys.”
Therefore, the time has come to change this situation. Nonetheless, 2020 or 2025 are still far off, and therefore these problems are likely to hang around a while longer. In the meantime, the Commission suggests that the ESA should “make the necessary structural adaptations (financial and internal decision making) to ensure that activities delegated to the ESA by the Commission are managed within an EU-like environment”. It also calls for “unrestricted access” to the agency’s “relevant statutory bodies” in order to ensure coordination with EU policy. This is an important first step.(1) The communication is available at
www.europolitics.info > Search = 324743
(2) The following countries are members: Belgium, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Germany, Ireland, Greece, Spain, France, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Austria, Portugal, Romania, Finland, Sweden and the United Kingdom. Poland is in the process of ratifying its membership.