The writer is chief executive and co-founder of Planet
When terrestrial politics has been frosty, nations have turned to space as a venue for co-operation — to cast differences aside in the name of science. The joint US-Soviet Apollo-Soyuz mission at the height of the cold war involved extraordinary levels of collaboration between these adversaries and showed the powerful role space can play.
That’s why the announcement of a merger last month between French satellite operator, Eutelsat, and the newer British satellite operator, OneWeb, is important. It opens up the opportunity for London and Brussels to get relations back on track.
Before Brexit, the UK belonged to both the EU’s Galileo global navigation system and Europe’s Copernicus earth observation programme. It made perfect sense. The expense and global coverage of space systems means that it’s difficult for any one nation to go it alone. In the same way that Cern has brought together the best minds in nuclear physics, the European Space Agency (ESA) has been a crucible for co-operation. There are huge mutual benefits to collaborating — scientifically, technically, economically and politically — with citizens benefiting from technologies that give us GPS, weather forecasts and communications.
The UK is still a member of ESA after leaving the EU, but this does not give it access to Galileo or Copernicus, which are EU programmes. Brexit means that the UK can no longer participate in the secure part of Galileo, while its involvement in Copernicus is the subject of continued wrangling. There may be understandable reasons for arriving where we have, but it’s clear that both sides are losing out.
The Eutelsat-OneWeb deal presents an opportunity to change all of this. The agreement would combine Eutelsat’s geostationary broadcast satellite fleet with OneWeb’s satellite internet constellation in low-earth orbit to create a single global player in connectivity. Importantly, both the UK and French governments will have board representation in the new group. Commercial imperatives have brought the British and French governments, quite literally, to the table.
The details of the merger come just a few months after the EU announced plans to build a third major satellite fleet in low-earth orbit: a communications fleet, to compete alongside large US commercial constellations such as SpaceX’s Starlink. It will cost billions of euros and take ten years to construct. Meanwhile OneWeb, after a decade of development, is nearing the final stages of deployment, with 600 of its intended 648 satellites in orbit. OneWeb may not provide exactly the same specification as the planned EU system, but it covers most of its desired capabilities — and it did so a decade earlier.
So here’s a smart way through: the UK, which retains exclusive rights over OneWeb, could allow the EU to use its satellite systems to meet Brussels’ communications objectives. In return, the EU could allow the UK to return to Galileo and Copernicus. This means making the relatively easy decision to bring the UK into the Copernicus fold, while recognising that Europe’s defence imperatives, especially in light of the Ukraine war, now change the calculus for the UK rejoining Galileo.
The horse trade is win-win, pure and simple. Both sides get what they want, including getting access to critical capabilities many years before they would otherwise. Moreover, London and Brussels would save a huge amount of taxpayers’ money — at a time when there will be a lot less of it to go around. A deal of this sort would no doubt require compromise on both sides, particularly after the EU has been clear that sovereignty is important to its ambitions for a new constellation. But we are in a world of changed geopolitical realities and the EU and UK must work together closely, including, indeed especially, in the security arena.
Such a space-led detente should, by the same force of logic, extend to Horizon Europe, the EU’s €95bn flagship scientific research programme. The impasse threatens to rupture connections carefully fostered over four decades, which have enriched science to the benefit of the UK and the EU27, as well as the world. Again, it’s a spat with no real winners. The EU misses out on £6.9bn in allocated funding and the UK is denied precious research partnerships. This isn’t what post-Brexit statecraft should look like.
Very soon, a new UK government will have to get to work, dealing with a formidable range of challenges. Resetting EU relations has the potential to help it address many of its immediate political and economic issues. A nimble act of space diplomacy with immediate benefits, as well as symbolic value, could provide the perfect place to start.