Most consumers and businesses take GPS for granted. It tells your smartphone where it’s taking a photo, enables your car to direct you to your destination, and (should) ensure that your last Amazon purchase is delivered to the right address. Accurate positioning also supports a range of military, homeland security and intelligence applications. That GPS also provides timing extends its application even further (e.g. into financial services).
In fact a recent Blackett review, published by the Government Office for Science, snappily titled Satellite-derived Time and Position: A Study of Critical Dependencies together with a previous report from InnovateUK, the UK Government’s Innovation Agency, highlighted just how dependent much of the economy is to the loss of GPS. Dependence on a system that could be switched off at US Presidential whim has lead the European Union, Russia and China to develop home-grown alternatives.
The UK Government has invested heavily in the EU system, Galileo, with UK companies such as Airbus building satellites (and Airbus’s Surrey Satellites subsidiary assembling and testing all of the payloads) and providing key input to the more reliable, encrypted element of Galileo, the Public Regulated Service (PRS), intended to be only available to an authorised list of users. Further to this, some of Galileo’s worldwide ground-based infrastructure is hosted by far-flung British colonies.
Unfortunately, Brexit throws a spanner in the works. EU Industrial Strategy dictates that, wherever practical (the atomic clocks are Swiss!) Galileo’s supply chain should comprise of EU based entities. Additionally the PRS was intended to add value only to EU public agencies, which implicitly could be trusted to use it in a manner compatible with European purposes.
The UK Government has understandably argued that, Brexit or no Brexit, all EU28 countries benefit if the UK stays in the Galileo programme, not least as the EU actually uses the European Space Agency (which is an inter-governmental organisation rather than an EU agency, and which the UK will remain a high-contributing member of post-Brexit) to run the procurement side of the programme. However, current direction of travel suggests that, when the UK leaves the EU, the Galileo programme will join the Single Market and the Customs Union as other things the UK will also leave.
The shorter term issue for the UK is UK companies being cut out of doing any work on the Galileo project, despite the UK having paid considerably towards it; the longer term issue is the UK military and intelligence agencies being denied access to the PRS, where Galileo’s rules make it almost impossible for non Member States to have access.
So the UK Government has assembled a team of experts to identify the practicality of the UK designing and launching its own GNSS satellite constellation. At least the UK could deploy the latest technologies, would maximise the work undertaken in the UK, and potentially has a use for one or more of the spaceports the Government is expected to announce soon. The UK may also not require quite as wide coverage as Galileo will provide when fully built.
The rules for PRS access were drawn up to cope with requests for access from countries which weren’t Member States such as Norway or the US; the rules weren’t intended to deal with a Member State (and a large one, with a proportionately large military spend, at that) leaving the Union.
This has resulted in the kind of inconsistency it would, frankly, have been difficult to make up: the EU wants to deny UK access to a technology largely built by UK companies, while Member States want to keep sharing intelligence with the UK (the only European member of the Five Eyes intelligence alliance), and some Member States (such as Estonia) are happy to host UK military forces to bolster their own defences – yet the UK can’t be trusted with accurate navigation?
Going forwards, EU27 military and intelligence forces are likely to be the worse for the Galileo programme no longer having access to crucial British skills and expertise. And while UK taxpayers potentially avoid paying future contributions into the Galileo programme, some of those savings would have to be invested in another GPS-like system, even as the last one UK taxpayers invested in is still being built. There will be some companies which will pick up contracts as a result of the fallout from this decision, but citizens across the entire EU28 collectively may lose.
While the UK Government is struggling to get to grips with customs and other mission-critical issues for industry, the EU is showing that it too is not immune to making Brexit even more complex for business. Both sides must now recognise that politics and entrenched rules must not stand in the way of securing the best outcome for citizens.