EU tells UK: Cut the BS, sign here, and you can have access to Galileo sat's secure service

ESA shuffles Brits about as Brexit bites


Hidden away in the document laying out the starting position for EU and UK negotiations lies an interesting nugget for those following the tortured tales of the European satellite navigation system, Galileo.

With Brexit "done" (we have a tea towel on order saying it so it must be true), the starting position for the future relationship has been published [PDF] and, as expected, it appears the UK will have access to the Public Regulated Service (PRS) of Galileo required by the military.

It just won't be able to participate in developing the thing, and its use must also not "contravene the essential security interests of the Union and its Member States", which will doubtless set the "take back control" crowd a-frothing.

For those lucky enough to have missed all the twists and turns in the previous season of Blighty's attempts to depart the European Union (so convoluted that even Netflix might say "steady on"), Galileo was one of those moments of awakening when UK lawmakers realised that if you leave a club, you also lose access to its toys.

The UK was also blocked from working and bidding on sensitive parts of the system, much to the outrage of politicos taken by surprise at the prospect of not having access to a system into which Blighty had poured funds.

Toys were subsequently flung from the pram and the UK stomped off, clutching its bat and ball and saying, in a wavery playground "Star Trek is better than Star Wars" voice that it would build its own version. So there.

The UK military already has access to sensitive bits of GPS, and Galileo's PRS would, certainly initially, be a handy backup. Access to PRS could also render redundant the proposed multibillion-pound Brexit Satellite (BS) system to give the UK its very own sat-nav system.

That access does, of course, depend on a deal being signed, and the EU's starting point is clear.

And then there is the question of national ego. Dr Bleddyn Bowen, lecturer in International Relations and Space Policy at the University of Leicester, told The Register: "I don't know what prestige will be gained as the UK GNSS or Brexit System is widely seen as a waste of resources."

He added that the BS was regarded by many in the space community as "a political vanity project".

The final paragraph (136, b) of the section on Space also requires reciprocal access should the BS go ahead. Never let it be said that Eurocrats don't have a sense of humour.

We asked the UK Space Agency, tasked in August 2018 with leading a £92m effort to look at Brexit Satellite options, for its thoughts on the EU's opening position.

The agency was unable to comment, but did direct us to a statement from then-prime minister Theresa May, to the effect that if the UK was excluded in the development of Galileo it would not seek access to the PRS.

The agency is still "assessing what a UK system could look like, and how it would meet our needs", according to a spokesperson.

Bye-bye Blighty

ESA began shunting Brits from Galileo last year. A worker within the agency told The Register that pretty much all UK citizens were being shifted from EU-funded programmes such as Galileo and EGNOS (rather than just those working on classified elements) and another confirmed that Brits were indeed on the move.

Paul Verhoef, ESA's director of navigation, told us: "The EU satellite navigation programmes (Galileo, EGNOS, and related R&D) that ESA implements are subject to EU rules, including on security. ESA is committed to respect and implement these rules based on the Need-To-Know principles for classified and PRS material, and established through the security framework established within the ESA-EU Security Agreement.

"The measures taken by ESA are fully in line with these principles and rules and take account of the foreseen change of status of the UK within the EU. Therefore, unless certain security agreements are in place by the foreseen date of Brexit on 31 January 2020, the status of UK nationals, and their access rights to the information in the programmes, will change."

The UK Space Agency would not be drawn on the fate of those shifted onto other work (if ESA employees) but did tell us: "The UK will continue to play a leading role in European Space Agency programmes, from missions to Mars to Earth observation and advanced telecommunications. The work to develop a UK Global Navigation Satellite System, as an alternative to the EU Galileo system, is progressing well."

Behold, the Brexit Satellite

Should the UK find something better on which to spend the BS billions, and make use of the Galileo PRS instead, Dr Bowen observed that "the GNSS industry can fall into line with all the other industries that are finding it hard going thanks to Brexit".

And lawmakers? "The UK Gov is playing up the bluster and drama for domestic news consumption," said Dr Bowen.

"The choice later in 2020 will be either what the EU is willing to give," of which we have a relatively good idea thanks to Monday's publication, "or 'no deal'.

"Which now," he added, "has around a dozen different aliases."

It wouldn't be the end of the world if 2021 rolls around and quivering fingers are pointing. "Britain could still try to negotiate on it separately again in future if it and the EU wishes," said Bowen.

"It is in the EU's defence and security interests to have the UK able to use the PRS element of Galileo as a passive user." ®

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