The writer is CEO and co-founder of Planet
When Earth politics were icy, nations turned to space as a place for cooperation – to put aside differences 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.
This is why the announcement of a merger last month between the French satellite operator, Eutelsat, and the new British satellite operator, OneWeb, is important. This opens up the opportunity for London and Brussels to get their relationship back on track.
Before Brexit, the UK belonged to both the EU’s Galileo global navigation system and the European Earth observation program Copernicus. It was perfectly logical. The cost and global coverage of space systems means it is difficult for any nation to go it alone. Just as CERN has brought together the best minds in nuclear physics, the European Space Agency (ESA) has been a melting pot of cooperation. There are enormous mutual benefits to collaborating – scientifically, technically, economically and politically – with citizens benefiting from the technologies that give us GPS, weather forecasting and communications.
The UK is still a member of ESA after leaving the EU, but that does not give it access to Galileo or Copernicus, which are EU programs. Brexit means the UK can no longer participate in the secure part of Galileo, while its involvement in Copernicus is the subject of ongoing disputes. There may be understandable reasons for getting where we are, but clearly both sides lose.
The Eutelsat-OneWeb agreement offers an opportunity to change all that. The deal would combine Eutelsat’s fleet of geostationary broadcast satellites with OneWeb’s satellite internet constellation in low Earth orbit to create a unique global connectivity player. Importantly, both the UK and French governments will be represented on the board of the new group. Commercial imperatives literally brought the British and French governments to the table.
Details of the merger come just months after the EU announced plans to build a third major fleet of low-Earth-orbit satellites: a communications fleet, to compete with major US commercial constellations such as SpaceX’s Starlink. It will cost billions of euros and take ten years to build. Meanwhile, OneWeb, after a decade of development, is nearing the final stages of deployment, with 600 of its planned 648 satellites in orbit. OneWeb may not deliver the exact same specs as the planned European system, but it covers most of its desired capabilities – and it did a decade earlier.
So here’s a clever solution: the UK, which retains exclusive rights to OneWeb, could allow the EU to use its satellite systems to meet Brussels’ communication goals. In return, the EU could allow the UK to revert to Galileo and Copernicus. It means making the relatively easy decision to bring the UK into the Copernican fold, while recognizing that Europe’s defense imperatives, particularly in light of the war in Ukraine, now change the calculus so that the UK joins Galileo.
The horse business is a win-win, pure and simple. Both sides get what they want, including access to critical abilities many years before they otherwise would. Plus, London and Brussels would save huge amounts of money for taxpayers – at a time when there will be far less for everyone. Any such deal would no doubt require compromise on both sides, especially after the EU has made it clear that sovereignty is important to its ambitions for a new constellation. But we are in a world where geopolitical realities have changed and the EU and the UK must work closely together, including, and above all, in the field of security.
Such space-led détente should, by the same force of logic, extend to Horizon Europe, the EU’s flagship €95 billion scientific research programme. The standoff threatens to sever the ties carefully nurtured over four decades, which have enriched science for the benefit of the UK and the EU27, as well as the world. Again, it’s a spat with no real winners. The EU is missing out on £6.9bn of allocated funding and the UK is being denied valuable research partnerships. This is not what post-Brexit politics should look like.
Very soon, a new British government will have to get to work, facing a formidable array of challenges. Resetting relations with the EU could help solve many of its immediate political and economic problems. An agile act of space diplomacy with immediate benefits, as well as symbolic value, could be the ideal starting point.