The European Union (EU) may set up a dedicated directorate within the European Space Agency (ESA) to resolve mismatches in the way the two bodies cooperate.
The option emerged as the leading contender in a report published by the European Commission on 6 February, which scoped out several scenarios for their future relationship.
The “pillar” or “chamber” would allow EU projects to be run under EU rules but from within ESA. A second route explored in the report, based largely on results of an external study by Munich-based Roland Berger Strategy Consultants, would be to improve cooperation under the status quo, with an improved interface between the two. Other options — for example to turn ESA wholesale into an EU agency — curried little favour.
The EU currently allocates around three-quarters of its space budget to ESA, making it the agency’s largest contributor. ESA already delivers dedicated EU-funded projects such as the global satellite navigation system Galileo and the Earth observation programme Copernicus.
But the two organisations run in very different ways. While ESA is under direct control of member states, the EU reports to both member states and the European Parliament. In its industrial dealings, ESA operates under a policy of juste retour that guarantees states contracts roughly proportionate to their financial contributions, while the EU goes on the principle of best value.
Nor do the two bodies have the same membership: among ESA’s members are Norway and Switzerland, with Canada also an associate. The Commission says this membership asymmetry could become a particular concern as ESA and the EU move into more defence-related activities.
The Commission laid out the case for reforming the relationship based on these asymmetries in 2012, with member state ministers also backing a change in February last year.
Ministers will discuss the findings when the Competitiveness Council meets on 21 February, with the Commission planning to further analyse the options over the coming year. Depending on the outcome — as well as dialogue with ESA — the Commission says it could produce concrete proposals towards the end of 2014 or early 2015. ESA is expected to take a decision about the evolution of the agency during its council meeting in December.
Speaking at the sixth annual Conference on EU space policy in Brussels last month, UK science minister David Willetts outlined his government’s objection to bringing ESA into the EU structure. “This suggestion has caused a lot of distraction and delay, while our competitors outside Europe focus on growth and make progress,” he says.
The EU has plans to increase its spending on space. Between 2014 and 2020, it will spend almost €12bn on funding space activities — a doubling of investment compared to the previous financial planning period.