A heated debate concerning 'a cold potato'
My blog has been quiet in recent weeks; the reason for this is that it has been hectic. Too many appointments and events – from the ILA Berlin Airshow and the International Astronautical Congress (IAC) in Naples, to internal appointments within DLR – have fully taken up the time allocated to me by Earth's rotation. One particularly important event is the upcoming ESA Council meeting at ministerial level, which will also take place in Naples, on 20 and 21 November 2012. This meeting is being built up as a directional decision-making session dealing with a range of open questions.
Preparations for this are currently in full swing – weekly meetings of the ESA delegations as Council Working Groups or formal ESA councils are taking place to prepare the various resolutions and declarations. In addition, there are bilateral consultations on the treatment of specific subjects. So far so good, and certainly important and appropriate. Subjects such as the future of European launcher systems and use of the International Space Station (ISS) will be hotly debated, with a gradual rapprochement of positions and, hopefully, timely agreement.
At the same time, the subject of the future relationship between the European Space Agency (ESA) and the European Union (EU) or the European Commission is taking centre stage. Documents intended to show the way forward, formulated as 'resolutions' or 'communications', are being drawn up by both sides. In this regard, very dogmatic positions are being adopted and presented with great seriousness as the 'true solutions' for bringing both sides closer together. An analytical consideration of the various stakeholders, of the legal bases of their documents and of their respective competencies does not, on quiet reflection, point in their stated directions.
ESA Council meeting in The Hague, November 2008. Image: ESA.
Firstly there is ESA, with a successful history over the past nearly 50 years as a European space agency under the direct control of delegations from the member states, and with clear industrial policy requirements that are especially indispensible for space. Here, the internal allocation of mandatory and optional programmes continues to be sustainable in the future.
Likewise, the European Commission, as a body acting on behalf of the European Union, has successfully demonstrated in the past that in various fields – especially the funding of research – its mechanisms, which are based mainly on competition, can be viable for Europe.
The problems with the current discussions pertain to those of the participants' communication and self-conception. Both sides are calling on the authority of the Treaty of Lisbon and the responsibilities specified therein. From this, the European Commission has made an absolute claim on the formulation of and overall responsibility for European space policy. On the other hand, ESA is insistent regarding its international foundations, its scope of activity, again in the area of space policy, as defined in its convention, and its parallel responsibility, which is clearly stated in the Treaty of Lisbon.
Handling this supposedly hot potato is inflaming tempers for no reason. Obviously, ESA should not relinquish its successful mechanisms, which go beyond industrially and politically important 'geographical-return' rules and programme councils. The European Commission's requirement for adoption of all the EU rules will come to nothing and could be harmful. Nevertheless, making the alliance between ESA and the EU fit for the future is important. The simplest solution, but perhaps therefore not the one being approached in the circles of the professional participants in the discussion, is a separate EU programme within ESA. Here, the commission's projects could be handled in accordance with EU rules and be carried out using the existing capabilities of ESA as a space agency. This programme area could come under the administrative responsibility of a separate directorate, under the auspices of ESA.
The question of responsibility for European space policy – or, to be more specific – for the formulation of recommendations for coordinating national and supranational space activities remains. Once again, no new institutional acrobatics are required. The Space Council, as the joint instrument of ESA and the EU, already deals with this.
So instead of having on-going heated debates about a cold potato, and in addition to pragmatic approaches for reinforcing institutional European space flight, it is important to push for solutions to specific, truly important and non-trivial matters – decisions concerning the future of launch systems, the Space Station and other activities permit no delay if Europe's competitiveness is to be maintained and reinforced.
Top image: Flags of the ESA Member States. Image: ESA.