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Sentinel 5P and Brexit


Notice the flag in the upper left…

On Friday Sentinel-5P was launched. The British press were keen to emphasise that it was ‘British built’[1], one, the Mirror, goes so far as the call it “Britain’s Sentinel-5P”. I found the UK press’ coverage of Sentinel-5P to be indicative of much of the coverage of Europe and the European Union in general, and helps illustrate the ignorance displayed by many about the work of the European Union. Yes, Sentinel-5P was assembled in Britain, but was designed by a team based in the Netherlands, all working for European company (Airbus), launched by the European Space Agency as part of the Copernicus Programme which is funded and run by the European Commission of the European Union. Only the BBC and Sky mentioned the role of the European Union, the tabloid press made it sound as if this was a British project that a few Europeans helped out on, but even the BBC and Sky overly emphasised the British contribution. This is important, for two reason. First there is a general issue with the inadequacy of much of the reporting of the British press regarding issues relating to the European Union, which explains much of the ignorance surrounding the EU amongst the British population. Second, and what I am going to focus most of this post on, is the fact that Brexit is going to have a negative impact on the UK space industry and will mean that the UK loses any ‘say’ in the actual operation of “Britain’s Sentinel-5P”.


A European Satellite Launched From Russia – photo ESA

I have written on this issue before, so won’t regurgitate many of the facts and figures (which haven’t changed) here but direct you to my previous posts.[2] A little over a year ago I attended a conference at Newcastle University on the EU referendum. I talked about the potential negative consequences of Brexit for the UK space industry given how ‘European’ the industry is and the role that European workers and research funds play in maintaining the health and vitality of the sector. At the time I still had some hope that the government would see reason and opt for a ‘soft Brexit’[3], however it is becoming increasingly clear that the government of Theresa May is unbelievably incompetent and will not only stumble into a ‘no deal’ Brexit but is actively pursuing it.[4]

This is important for the UK space sector and for a big reason: Galileo. Galileo is the other EU space programme, the European Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS) ie the European civilian alternative and complement to the US Department of Defense’s GPS. Galileo was pretty central to the UK governments space Innovation and Growth Strategy’s goal of growing the UK space sector to capture 10% of the global space market or be worth about £40 billion.[5] And it actually could be more than that as Morgan Stanley has recently estimated that the global space economy could be worth over £800 billion by 2040.[6]

At the Newcastle conference, amid all the doom and gloom, I did articulate that there was scope for the UK to remain involved in EU space programmes, to some degree. For example, while the Public Regulated Service (PRS) of Galileo (the most accurate data service) is by default only available to Member States of the European Union (which the UK will cease to be 30 March 2019) it is potentially possible to negotiate access, especially as the UK can leverage its historical contributions to the programme. However, this would require the UK to actually negotiate an agreement and require accepting the leadership of the European Commission in both of these programmes, paying the European Union for access, and probably accepting a role for the European Court of Justice. All of which are seemingly essentially ‘no goes’ in any post Brexit relationship with the EU for the UK.[7] Therefore, I predict that the worst possible outcome for the UK space sector will be what occurs in 18 months as given that the UK government seems either unwilling or incapable of negotiating with the European Union on matters of vital importance (such as enabling airplanes to continue flying in and out of the country…[8]) it isn’t going to be willing or able to do it for the space sector, which, not unreasonably, warrants less attention from the government than other issues on the Brexit ‘to do’ list.

All in all, to say things don’t look good is an understatement, an outlook that’s not helped by incomplete, inadequate or inaccurate reporting from the British press, to link back to the beginning of this rant…


[3]While I think that any Brexit is a bad idea, given that no Brexit is probably not a viable option I’d opt for a ‘Norway’ or ‘Swiss’ model

[5]UK Space Agency, Satellite Applications Catapult, Innovate UK et al (2015) UK Space Innovation and Growth Strategy: 2015 Update Report

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