Last week the UK voted to leave the European Union (EU). For us it was sad day, evidenced by the fact that on voting day Sam was at the European Association of Remote Sensing Laboratories (EARSeL) Symposium in Bonn, Germany; and I was in Brussels having attended the European Association of Remote Sensing Companies (EARSC) Annual General Meeting the day before â€“ I should say we had both already submitted our postal votes!
This obvious topic for this week is what Brexit means for the UK Space Market, and in turn what it means for us:
European Space Agency (ESA)
ESA is not the EU. It has a different membership and different rules. The UK can remain part of ESA even if it leaves the EU, as evidenced by Norway and Switzerlandâ€™s membership, and even Canadaâ€™s associate membership.
However, at the ESA Ministerial in December member countries will need to declare how much money they intended to contribute towards ESA programmes. ESA operates a geo-return principle which dictates that countries cannot receive more money back than they put in, and therefore the decision on how much funding to commit at the December meeting will be vital for the UK Space Industry.
At the moment there is a power vacuum in this country following the resignation of the Prime Minister, and it would appear that no major decisions will be made on the future direction of the country until the new Prime Minister is appointed in September. Given the new Prime Minister will want to set up his own Executive arrangements and that the most pressing matter will be Brexit, it is not clear who will be taking the significant decision on the UKâ€™s ESA Contribution.
Lack of commitment at this point has the potential to damage the UK Space Industry far more than Brexit.
Despite the assertion above that the EU and ESA are different bodies, they are linked organisations. They have a joint European Space Strategy and the EU is the biggest financial contributor to ESAâ€™s budget. In addition, the EU owns a number of programmes such as Copernicus and the Galileo positioning, navigation & timing network.
Outside the EU the UK will probably no longer have a voice within these programmes and it is unlikely the siting of significant infrastructure related to these programmes, such as ground segments, will include this country. Hence, even remaining an active participant within ESA, it is hard to argue against the fact that the UKâ€™s role in the future of the European space industry will diminish.
The space industry, like other industries, currently benefits from the single market which makes it easier for European businesses to trade with each other. It is clear that most of our businesses, and politicians, feel that this is a benefit theyâ€™d like to keep. The question is whether they will be willing to pay the EUâ€™s price?
If they do, then it is likely that change will be limited. However, if they donâ€™t and the UK leaves the Single Market then trade with Europe will become more difficult. It will of course continue, but there may be tariffs, limitations on exports/imports and the potential for businesses to open or close offices within the UK or Europe to best maintain their access to both the UK and European markets.
We collaborate with a lot of EU companies, scientists and students. Now again there is no suggestion that this would stop, but everything will become more complicated.
- How easy and quickly will people be able to get visa to travel to Europe or vice versa? This could impact attendance at meetings or conferences.
- Will European Conferences still come to the UK?
- What will be the impact on placement programmes such as ERASMUS? ERASMUS has different membership to the EU, like ESA, but will the UK still be as attractive to those students?
Of real scientific concern is the emerging anecdotal evidence that UK researchers are being removed from EU based funding bids, such as Horizon 2020, as the consortia fear their bids will be less attractive if the UK is involved. If true, this is will impact scientific research, at least in the short term until our involved in such programmes is clarified.
UK Space Industry
The UK has an expanding, exciting and innovative space industry and the future is certainly not dependant on us being part of the EU. However, it would be naÃ¯ve to suggest that we donâ€™t face challenges ahead following Brexit. There are a number of key elements we need in place to ensure that our industry can continue to thrive:
- Commitment to our continued membership of ESA, supported by funding at the December ministerial.
- Commitment that the resources the UK Science and Space sectors received via EU funding, such as Horizon 2020, must be replaced with equivalent UK based funding calls.
- Not to let the Brexit negotiations overtake everything else. For example, it must not stop continuing progress on elements such as a UK Spaceport.
We have a variety of strong European links including:
- European contracts
- Scientific collaboration with European Researchers/Institutes
- European placement students spending time working with us
- Contracts that are either directly, or indirectly, based on ESA funding
- Membership of European Associations
We believe we have a strong business, with good value products and a positive brand. However, like all other UK businesses, we are going to need to assess our current business strategy, and decisions we need to make, through the prism of Brexit as further information is known.
Almost one week on from the UK vote, I think our position is best summed up by paraphrasing the famous statement of US Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld:
There are some things we do not know, but there are also things we don’t know we don’t know and those will be the difficult ones.
Or to put it more succinctly, we face months, and years, of uncertainty! What does everyone else think?