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The strange death of politics

Posted by Richard Thursday, December 29, 2005 ,

Today's Telegraph cartoon says it all about the Conservative Party, but it would be wrong to attribute the vacuum of policy solely to the Boy King and his cohorts.

Strangely, an illustration of the effect of this vacuum comes in the paper's coverage of the launch of Giove A – the first experimental satellite in the EU's Galileo programme.

If yesterday's coverage was bad, today's is, if possible, even worse. But what is so striking about it – especially in The Telegraph and The Times is the absence of a serious political dimension to the reporting, which is taken on a "Boys' Own" level, largely recycling the exaggerated claims from EU press releases.

Thus does Roger Highfield, science correspondent for The Telegraph, under the headline, "Navigation system to rival the US could improve air safety, locate lost children and find nearest cashpoint", warble about the system with which "it will be possible to find local theatres, shops, restaurants and cash machines on a mobile." Tourists, he adds, will be less likely to get lost with multimedia maps and directions delivered to their phones. Other services may locate children separated from their parents.

Oh, p-leeze.

The Times is no better, headlining, "Satellite will bring cinema listings to your mobile phone," its science correspondent chirping that the system will "transform the consumer applications of satellite positioning technology, allowing mobile phones with a Galileo chip to receive local weather forecasts and entertainment listings."

The point is that an issue such as this do not acquire a political dimension, and especially a party political dimension, unless the opposition parties make it so – whence the media will pick up on the controversy and report it. But, with very few, muted exceptions, the Conservative Party has been utterly silent on Galileo. I could not even tell you what its policy is on the issue, the Party website being devoid of any official statement.

Yet, there are major political implications in the project. For instance, there is the cost, not just in overall terms but in respect of the UK contribution. I have seen one report which mentions £92 million, but that likely to be a gross understatement for a project, the finances of which are anything but transparent.

Taking into account that much of the finance has been laundered through the EU’s framework research programme, with additional subventions through DG Transport, to which the UK will have contributed as part of the EU budget, I estimate that, by the time the Galileo constellation is fully deployed, British taxpayers will have shelled out in the order of £400 million.

This, even in today's inflated terms, is a lot of money yet, at no time do I recall either the taxpayers or Parliament having been asked to approve that expenditure. Whether we should have done so, when the US Navstar system is available to us free of charge, is a legitimate political question, and one on which the Conservative Party should have had a view.

By all means, you can argue that Galileo is a more accurate system and gives better coverage, but is that worth £400 million to the British taxpayer? That is especially relevant when Navstar is being progressively upgraded so that, by the time Galileo is operational, there will be very little difference in performance between the systems.

Another central question is whether the EU should at all have been involved. This project started off with the European Space Agency, which is not an EU institution. It is an intergovernmental agency, including members who are not part of the EU. Yet, over time, the EU has gradually hijacked the system, to call it its own.

Given that the EU is to run the system, a crucial issue comes with its political control. It is all very well warbling, as do the journos – faithfully repeating EU "spin" – that it is a civilian system run by a civilian consortium, but it is an inescapable fact – as we pointed out in our posting yesterday – that it is dual use.

Since the EU has allowed China to become a full development partner in the system, there is the distinct possibility that the People's Republic will exploit the military applications, and a possibility that weapons using Galileo will be deployed against the United States or its allies. The British view on this, and the effectiveness of political controls and decision-making, are vital political issues, especially in the context of our relationship with the US. They should have been discussed at the highest political level. Once again, the Conservative Party has been silent.

On the military aspects, the present government maintains the stance that Galileo is a civilian system – despite its dual-use capability – and that Navstar is to remain the standard for British armed forces, under the umbrella of Nato.

On the other hand, the French government has made it very clear that it intends to use Galileo for its armed forces, while our government is committed to military integration with our European "partners", not least through the European Rapid Reaction Force. In this, GPS is the core system in the modern, "net-centric" military, bundled with other systems to such an extent that, unless we also use Galileo, our electronic equipment will not be compatible – and therefore interoperable – with European forces, negating the whole concept of the ERRF.

This raises the questions of whether we will be forced to abandon the Nato standard, whether we will have to bear the huge cost – if practicable – of providing dual-standard equipment – and, if we do abandon Navstar, the implications for the Atlantic alliance. None of these questions have been rehearsed by the Conservative Party, which has uncritically accepted the government assurances on the continued use of Navstar.

Turning to broader issues, many of Galileo's applications have to do with transport. A central plank of the EU's strategy is to use the signal to manage the "Single European Sky", requiring all aircraft using European airspace to be equipped with Galileo-based equipment. Air transport, however, is a global industry and since the US is not likely to abandon Navstar in its own airspace, the EU action will inevitably require most aircraft to be fitted with both systems. Do we really want this, and what are the implications of the EU charging for GPS-based navigation systems when the US is providing them free of charge? These are political questions, again unasked by the Conservatives.

Still on transport, the Telegraph's Roger Highfield writes that Galileo will "underpin road-pricing", and he is not the only one to write in such vein. For sure, GPS provides one of the technical options available to manage road pricing, but is it necessarily the right one? And are we in favour of road pricing schemes at all? These questions have yet to be fully debated. Now, the problem is that, with such a huge investment in Galileo, member states – and the EU – will be looking for schemes to justify (and recoup) the investment – creating huge pressure for GPS-based road charging, for financial rather than operational reasons.

The same goes for controlling shipping, for regulatory issues such as monitoring fishing vessels and even for farm animal movements, where the pressure will be to use Galileo rather than Navstar.

Then there is the biggest question of them all, oddly enough acknowledged by the Europhile press such as the Guardian and the Independent. Both these papers readily attest that Galileo is a political project, aimed as much at increasing the prestige of the EU and Europe's independence from the United States – although, with inintended hilarity, The Independent writes about the network of satellites orbiting the earth at 14,000 feet (sic). In this case, writes one of our readers, wouldn't it be cheaper to push them out of the back of a low-flying Hercules (or European equivalent) rather than blast them off from Kazakhstan?

But the serious issue is very serious. Is it in our national interest to be part of a system that is, as the Guardian puts it, " a challenge to US"? What does this do for our "special relationship"?

The issues thus are profound, but discussion of them is absent from the media today in part because the Conservatives have been silent on them. They have put down no "markers" and let the issue go by default. And, in continuing his silence on a wide range of issues, the Boy King is contributing to this strange death of politics.

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