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UK, Germans, Dutch slam EC Galileo plan

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The long-delayed European sat nav project Galileo was plunged into fresh controversy last night, as a plan by Brussels officials to solve funding problems met political opposition.

Galileo has been bogged down for some time now due to lack of funds for its construction. Originally this cash was to have been supplied by industry in return for the privilege of operating Galileo. However, industry was doubtful as to how much revenue could actually be wrung from Galileo users, given that the civil signal of the US armed-forces' Global Positioning System is available for free.

Earlier this year it was agreed by European national governments that public money would be used to make up the shortfall, amounting to approximately €2.4bn. However, the exact details of the funding changes and their consequences for the ultimate control of Galileo remained unclear.

Last month the European Commission (EC), naturally enough a citadel of Europe-as-a-superpower aspiration, proposed finding the money from the European Union budget. The Commissioners' plan would not involve any further money being supplied to Brussels by national taxpayers; rather, the idea was to raise the cash mostly from "unspent" farm subsidies already budgeted for.

Last night, however, it was reported that the EC plans had failed to find universal favour among national governments. The BBC reports that ministers from Britain, the Netherlands and Germany are opposed to the Brussels scheme. Reportedly these governments - large net contributors who pay more into the EU than they get out - would prefer that the taxpayer rescue money for Galileo was delivered via the European Space Agency (ESA) rather than the EC.

"The German government does not agree with the Commission's proposal in this form," said Transport Minister Wolfgang Tiefensee at a Luxembourg meeting of transport ministers.

The ESA, despite its name, is nothing to do with the EU and is not under the control of Brussels, though there is a framework agreement on cooperation between the two bodies which is due for renewal next year. ESA also has a small transatlantic element, in that Canada has a seat on its governing council and participates in its projects. Nations contribute to ESA sat nav programmes on an optional basis.

If construction funding for Galileo were channeled via the ESA, the EU/EC government in Brussels would presumably have relatively little say in how the sat nav system was run. Conceivably, it might become a politically neutral service guaranteed to operate regardless of wars, disputes etc.

Brussels, by contrast, is widely suspected of seeing Galileo as a tool of military and strategic policy, just as GPS could be for the United States (of America). EC Transport Commissioner Jacques Barrot has been quoted as saying that "Galileo is a strategic project for the EU. We don't want to depend on the GPS signal, as the United States can step in at any time for military reasons" and that "the debate still needs to be open" on military aspects of Galileo.

National finance ministers will now discuss Galileo, and a final decision is expected from heads of state in December.®

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