Europe urged to deepen co-operation in space to counter global rivals

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The head of Europe’s space agency has urged the continent’s governments to deepen integration of their national space capabilities in the areas of security and defence in order to keep up with global rivals.

Josef Aschbacher, director-general of the European Space Agency, said in an interview with the Financial Times that European countries had strong competences in many space sectors but that the continent lacked a unified European capability, notably in security and defence.

“This is quite different to any other country in the world. In the US, China, India, Japan and many other countries, space is driven to a good extent by security and defence,” he added.

“I’m firmly convinced that further integration and pooling would be for the benefit of Europe.”

Space is becoming an increasingly competitive sector for global powers such as the US, China, Russia and India as they jostle for superiority in extraterrestrial technology and seek to use their space-based assets on the ground, such as for military purposes.

European spending on space, both by national governments and the private sector, lags behind that in the US and China, prompting calls for a more integrated approach that would better utilise the continent’s combined resources.

The ESA, an intergovernmental organisation, is made up of 22 countries, including non-EU states Norway, Switzerland and the UK. It acts as the development and procurement agency for EU projects such as the Earth- monitoring programme Copernicus and the Galileo navigation satellite system.

The agency has a 2024 budget of €7.8bn, less than a third of US space agency Nasa’s $27.2bn.

Discussions over the merits of pooling space resources among European countries mirror a longstanding debate over combining military production and defence capabilities, something most governments have resisted out of a desire to maintain sovereign control.

That has led to a lack of efficiency and scale in weapons production and poor interoperability across Europe’s armed forces, almost all of which are allied under either or both the EU and Nato flags.

Aschbacher acknowledged that for better integration on space to be achieved, work would be needed to “overcome some of the more national priorities or reflexes”.

Moscow’s full-scale war against Kyiv has prompted some efforts to pool defence assets and helped spur a significant increase in spending on space by Poland, which borders Ukraine.

The rise of China as a leading player in space was also affecting the way European capitals saw the importance of having a united strategy, Aschbacher said.

“The rise of China is a fact . . . it’s something we have to take into account in our planning and strategy,” he said.

“Europe needs to position itself . . . for the sake of maintaining industrial capability or growing industrial capacity,” he said. “The growth of China is an opportunity for Europe to recognise the situation and therefore develop its strength.”

He added: “The question is, will there be further integration or strengthening of European capability . . . This is something to be answered by politicians.”

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