The curiously named Mr. Berry Smutny, until recently CEO of a major German contractor to the EU’s Galileo satellite project has, according to Wikileaks, described Galileo as “a stupid idea that primarily serves French interests”. He has a point. And Galileo may have a nasty sting in the tail.
The American GPS system which is widely used (it supports the SatNavs in our cars, for example) is tried and tested and it’s free. But of course Brussels and Paris hate to be beholden to the Americans. Suppose, they say, there was a military situation where the Americans chose not to support the EU’s position? Or to make it specific, suppose the Americans chose to switch off their GPS for French Exocet missiles? (I believe that technically it’s possible for the US to be quite selective on the availability of the service).
My reply (which I gave in a EuroParl TV discussion programme) was that I’d trust the Americans before I trusted the French. And in any case, the multibillion cost of Galileo seems to be an excessive insurance premium against a rather unlikely problem.
The whole thing seems to me to be predicated on the principle of “If the Americans can do it, then we can do it, and if they’ve got one, we want one too”. This is the policy strategy of four-year-olds in the nursery.
Galileo was originally intended to be funded largely be the private sector. There was brave talk of the commercial potential (how much do you pay to use your SatNav, by the way? I don’t seem to have got a bill yet). But the private sector took a close look and decided against participation. The project was only saved when the Commission took €2.4 billion (raided from EU agricultural funds, as it happens) and ploughed it in. Now, like Oliver Twist, they’re back for more. €1.9 billion more, as it happens. And given the history of public procurement, it would be a brave man who’d bet that it would stop there.
Galileo is also six years behind schedule. What was planned as a cutting-edge system may well be behind the curve if and when the satellites fly.
In April I was up against Edit Herczog on Europarl TV, a socialist Hungarian MEP. I see a lot of Edit as she’s very sound on nuclear energy, and runs the nuclear forum in the parliament. But on Galileo, we disagreed. By great good fortune, and in a wonderful piece of serendipity, I had previous to the interview attended a lunch in the parliament with the UK space industry, organised by my good friends and colleagues Jacqueline Foster and Geoffrey Van Orden.
Lest I hear mocking laughter in the background, let me hasten to assure you that despite the demise of Black Knight and Blue Streak, there is indeed a thriving space sector in the UK. We may not have an independent launch capability (unlike India, a recipient of UK foreign aid). But we do make and deliver a great deal of the technology used in the space business. It’s an industry not to be sniffed at, and while I am opposed in principle to Galileo, I nonetheless support the UK industry in securing a share of the action, even if the action itself is misplaced.
The industry says that one reason for its lack of primary involvement in Galileo was the overt politicisation of the bidding process by the Commission. I can well believe it. Nevertheless the industry is heavily engaged in supplying components, systems, software and so on.
Supporters of Galileo point to the projected growth of space and associated industries, and insist that the EU must be represented. I have no objection in principle to Europe’s involvement in space, though I’d rather see it done through the intergovernmental European Space Agency than through the Commission. But I’m against reinventing the wheel. Is it smart to put a huge investment of taxpayers’ money into developing something that the US developed ten years ago? And satellite systems are only a sector of the space industry. You don’t have to own the satellites to run a successful SatNav business, for example.
And the sting in the tail? A frightening suggestion was put to me over dinner one evening. The EU, if it succeeds in developing Galileo, will want to make money out of it. But why would users switch from the perfectly good US GPS system? Could Brussels mandate the use of the Galileo system in Europe? And could they then charge for it? Would we end up paying a second time for a white elephant? Monthly bills for SatNav use? Surely not, in a free market. And yet ..... stranger things have happened. I can just hear the sophistry of the European Commission as they explain that harmonisation of SatNav use is essential to ensuring a level playing field in the Single Market.
Be warned. Brussels believes in a Single Market, not a free market.