From The Editor | January 31, 2023

Inside The EU's Call For The Regulation Of Space Operations

John Oncea

By John Oncea, Editor

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The executive of the European Union – the European Commission – is calling for a “single market moment” and EU space laws to fend off a fragmentation of space regulations. Next month it will continue the discussion by exploring military usage in the final frontier. But what’s the end game?

Thierry Breton, Commissioner for the European Commission’s Internal Market, says, “2023 will be a crucial year to deliver on our European space ambitions.” He also warns of the need for an “EU space law” with common rules on safety, security, and sustainability.

Breton made these comments at Brussels's 15th European Space Conference held mid-January. According to eeNews Europe, he continued by saying, “Ten Member States have already started to regulate space operations. We face the risk of diverging national rules with a negative impact on the competitiveness of our industry, as well as on our security. We need, for instance, common rules on collision avoidance, safety and mitigation measures, threats assessment, resilience requirement, and a zero-debris approach.”

Meeting those “ambitious goals” would, Breton further explains, “build a European level-playing field based on European Union (EU) standards. This is ambitious yes. But I am convinced that this is the only way to ensure that future generations will enjoy all benefits from access to space services.”

Among the programs currently underway or scheduled to start in 2023 is the procurement of next-generation broadband satellites for the IRIS² program which will provide a governmental backbone infrastructure designed to serve public service, security, and defense needs, as well as a new range of commercial services.

Breton clarified this by noting, “We are making sure that consortia involve stakeholders beyond the usual space ecosystem, including downstream sector players; and associate SMEs and startups from the NewSpace and Digital worlds.”

First Up, The Military

In a related story, reports the European Commission will present its strategy to bolster the EU’s security and defense efforts in space in March. This comes during a time when Russia’s war in Ukraine is raising tensions not only around the world but in space, as well.

“In the current geopolitical context, we need to enhance the Union's strategic posture to be able to defend our interests, protect our space systems and services, and become a more assertive space power,” Breton told the opening of the European Space Conference.

Describing Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as a “wake-up call,” EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said the bloc needs to examine “how space assets and services are crucial” to common European action. While a little less than 10% of the 5,500 or so satellites currently in orbit are operated by the military, “many others are dual use and they provide critical information to support our security and defense.”

According to Breton, Europe’s space strategy would be based on four pillars. The first pillar, writes, “Aims to strengthen ‘the resilience and security framework for EU national and commercial space systems,’ while the second seeks to reinforce the bloc's ability to respond to threats.

“The third pillar is to increase the ‘use of space for security and defense operations,’ through programs that observe the Earth and monitor space traffic, as well as increased cooperation with partners such as NATO [more on that in the next section]. The final pillar will be to implement an “EU space law” to establish “common rules on safety, security, and sustainability of our systems.’”

NATO Is On Board But Does That Really Matter?

NATO, for its part, pledged to promote responsible behavior in space at a multilateral and bilateral level by signing the Joint Declaration on EU NATO Cooperation which identifies space as one of the new areas of cooperation. But does NATO’s support matter?

That’s a question the Center for Strategic & International Studies (CSIS) answered with a resounding maybe, calling the joint declaration “primarily symbolic, as it does not contain any announcements or deliverables.” The authors do note, “The main message is one of transatlantic unity on two fronts: in support of Ukraine and at a time of growing geopolitical competition with China. In this sense, it reflects the priorities agreed upon last year in NATO’s Strategic Concept and the European Union’s Strategic Compass.”

CSIS concludes by writing, “The implementation of the joint declaration as written would not seem to require much change in the existing direction of EU-NATO cooperation. Of the joint declaration’s 14 clauses, only four contain substantive calls to action; others simply observe changes in the security environment, express principles, or recognize action taken to date.”

And In The States?

The Cato Institute called the joint declaration “a (U.S. foreign policy) disaster.

“The declaration is a triumph for countries like Poland, who do not trust their European neighbors and instead want the United States to remain at the center of European security forever. It is a defeat for the American people. Washington should be handing European security off to the Europeans, not asking another generation of American taxpayers to foot the bill themselves.”

They conclude, writing of the policy, “Russia does not pose a threat to Europe that implicates U.S. security. Europe can contribute little value to efforts to deal with China. For those reasons, the American people should not be subsidizing European security. The Biden administration’s failure to hand European security off to the Europeans just consigned another generation of taxpayers to foot the bill for the U.S. project in Europe.”