Will there at some future date be a sort of 'EU pillar' in the European Space Agency (ESA)? This scenario is being seriously considered today and could obtain the approval of both the EU and the ESA as the two reflect on how their relations might develop. A 'big bang' scenario, in which the ESA would become an EU agency, a move that was considered at one point, creates more reluctance, as seen in a report adopted by the European Commission, on 6 February(1).
Reflection on EU-ESA relations was launched in late 2012, when the Commission called for better and stronger ties between the two given the EU's growing space activities, particularly with the Galileo and Copernicus programmes. Presently, the EU allocates to the ESA around 75% of its space budget - which will amount to nearly 12 billion for the years 2014-2020 - making it the largest contributor to the agency.
The problem is that the EU and the ESA function very differently and that management of these funds is therefore very complex. The fact that all ESA member countries are not EU members, and vice versa, further complicates the system. Under the ESA's voting rules, it is possible, for example, for important decisions on EU space programmes - like the launch of satellite - to be blocked by states that are not EU members. Furthermore, the ESA has no accountability obligations - politically or financially - to the European Parliament, whereas the Commission is accountable for delays or cost overruns with its space programmes.
In short, the EU (primarily) finds that it is time to improve the way its relationship with the ESA works, and of the scenarios considered, that of an 'EU pillar' in the agency seems to be leading the race. Obviously, there would have to be agreement on exactly what that means, but roughly it would be an EU division within the ESA that would deal only with EU programmes and that would not affect the functioning of the agency's other services. This scenario does not assume that the ESA ceases to exist as an intergovernmental organisation, unlike the one in which it would become an EU agency. Several member states are reluctant to see the ESA transformed into an EU agency and the ESA itself is divided. On the other hand, in its own analyses, the agency speaks of the creation of a sort of "EU chamber" as a possible solution.
So, what is the next step? The matter is set to be discussed at the Competitiveness Council, on 21 February, and conclusions should be adopted...