Flagship satellite navigation program Galileo adds fire to the debate

BRUSSELS ― Britain’s security and defense relationship with the European Union faces “a cliff edge” because of the country’s stalled exit from the organization, according to a senior British member of the European Parliament.

Charles Tannock said Thursday that not enough is known in how the U.K. will engage in European security and defense matters post Brexit.

He warned of Britain “falling off a cliff edge” if defense and security issues are unresolved by the time the U.K. leaves the EU at the end of March 2019.

“Time is fast running out. My fear is that vitally important security issues could all fall by the wayside if they are left to the very end of the current Brexit negotiations,” the center-right deputy cautioned.

The EU and U.K. are still thrashing out agreements over a range of matters, including the future trading relationship between the two sides and Ireland’s border, with security and defense being moved to the sidelines.

Tannock, who serves as the foreign affairs spokesman for his Conservative group in the European Parliament, raised his concerns at a meeting of the Constitutional Affairs Committee on “future EU-U.K. cooperation in security and defense” after Britain exits the 27-strong bloc.

“No one in the EU referendum campaign said that the lives of U.K. citizens could be in danger as a result of Brexit, and security and defense were rarely featured in the debate. But as it stands, I certainly fear a security cliff edge,” Tannock added.

He said his fears were exacerbated given the U.K.’s red lines, particularly opposition to the continued jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice, and the “paucity of time” left for Brexit negotiators to reach a deal. “If agreement is not found on these issues there is a real danger of a cliff edge, particularly on domestic security,” he said.

Disagreement in space

His concerns were echoed by another speaker, Mark Leonard, of the European Council on Foreign Relations, a U.K.-based pan-European think tank, who agreed there was a “real danger of a security cliff edge.”

“The issue of security and defense has simply not entered the public consciousness on either the EU or U.K. side in these Brexit negotiations. The debate has been entirely about other issues,” Leonard said. “While there is a basket of incredibly complex matters to negotiate this one, the issue of security and defense, is quite different from other areas.”

“Post-Brexit security arrangements will be extraordinarily difficult to resolve, including U.K. participation in Galileo,” he continued, referring to the EU’s flagship satellite navigation program. “But at a time when we are seeing all sorts of challenges everywhere from Russia and China to Donald Trump, we have to be aware that if EU side falls apart, it will be difficult to preserve the current world order.”

The antenna of the Galileo station in Kourou, French Guiana. (Manuel Pédoussaut/European Space Agency)
The antenna of the Galileo station in Kourou, French Guiana. (Manuel Pédoussaut/European Space Agency)

Germany and France are reportedly split on whether to allow the U.K. access to Galileo after Brexit. Germany supports the European Commission in seeking to deny Britain access to Galileo’s encrypted system for government and security use.

However, France has joined Spain, Sweden, the Netherlands and the Baltic states in objecting to the U.K.’s exclusion.

One European diplomat said Germany was using security as a lesson in the benefits of EU membership and the cost of leaving. This comes after Martin Selmayr, the German secretary-general of the European Commission, wrote to the U.K.’s ambassador to the EU, Tim Barrow, about the end of Britain’s participation in Galileo without proper consultation with member states.

“There is sympathy for Britain at being treated in this peremptory way,” another official noted.

Britain has spent about £1.2 billion (U.S. $1.6 billion) as its contribution to building the nearly £9 billion satellite system. But as things stand, only EU members would have access to the crucial military-grade data from Galileo. The U.K. has subsequently threatened to build its own system.

A U.K. government spokesman told Defense News: “The U.K. wants to continue participating in Galileo. This is in the mutual interests of the U.K. and EU, benefiting European competitiveness, security, capability development and interoperability.

“Future U.K. participation in Galileo should be agreed as part of the future security partnership between the UK and the EU.

“If agreement cannot be reached on the future balance of rights and obligations, and U.K. security and industrial requirements consequently cannot be met, the U.K. could not justify future participation in Galileo. In parallel, the U.K. is therefore exploring alternatives to fulfill its needs for secure and resilient position, navigation and timing information, including the option for a domestic satellite system.”

Tannock says the U.K. government should also ensure continued participation in other judicial and security-related program, such as the European Arrest Warrant and EU police agency Europol.

Another speaker at the hearing, Wolfgang Ischinger, a former German ambassador to the U.K., suggested that a “firewall” be created separating security and defense issues from other aspects of Brexit talks, such as trade.

“The U.K., even before the EU was founded, has always had a substantial strategic interest in ensuring that countries on the European continent would not go to war with each other,” he said. “For the 27 member states that remain after Brexit, it will be in their natural interests to still have the U.K. associated with defense and security interests as closely as possible, with or without the EU.”