Friday, June 08, 2007

Lost in space?

You can see the "colleagues" are getting a bit worried about their treasured Galileo satellite navigation system.

They've just rushed out a Eurobarometer survey telling us how much "Europeans" love the project, even though less than half of them are even aware of it. So it is that eighty percent of respondents agree on public funding to complete Galileo, despite a price tag of €2.4 billion.

What they have not been told though is that it will almost certainly cost another €1 billion a year for each year of operation – at the very least – or that it may well be used as the basis of a road charging system that will, collectively, cost them even more. Such little details need not trouble the minds of our happy "EU citizens". But then, if the questions were straight, they would not have got the answers they wanted.

As to the more important answer – whether they are going to get the money – it looks like they are going to have to wait. Although the Transport Council of 6-8 June was supposed to decide this issue, we now learn that the EU-27 transport ministers are now set to make only a short statement on the failure of the current concession contract and to ask the commission to go into more detail on the funding options.

Even though the project is already considerably delayed, the member states will then leave it to the October council to decide on its fate, when we are told they will consider how the finance will be obtained and how competences will be shared between the public and private sectors.

Here, there seems to be an even split, with the commission suggesting that the extra funds could be met from the EU budget, backed by the majority of the EU-27 and the EU parliament.

However, the three nations which collectively bankroll most of the EU budget, Germany, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom, would like to see individual states contribute the extra funds to the European Space Agency (ESA), which could then finance and manage the project.

That means, of course, that the Galileo enthusiasts would have to put their money on the table, instead of getting a free ride. It will be interesting to see then how keen they remain on the project.

Behind all this, though, is a major conundrum. It is far from certain whether the EU commission has a legal basis on which it can fund the project, as there is no formal space policy written into the treaty. Are we going to see a sudden amendment to the "mini-treaty" everyone seems to be rushing to agree, or is the project going to be lost in space?

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