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Merkel-Sarko confab could yield Galileo rescue plan

Brits, cloggies may need wits about them come December

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German chancellor Angela Merkel said yesterday that Germany and France were working together to deliver a rescue plan for Galileo, the proposed European sat nav constellation.

"We are going to ask our transport ministries to draw up concrete proposals for the council of European transport ministers," said Merkel during a joint press conference with French premier Nicolas Sarkozy.

For his part, Sarkozy said he hoped that the plan would be ready "if possible before November 30".

European Union national transport ministers will meet in December to settle EU business, and Galileo will be a major agenda item. It is being hotly debated across Europe at present, as the programme is currently short of around €2.4bn in funding.

The missing billions were originally to have been provided by the European space-biz sector, but private industry ultimately did not believe they would recoup such a level of investment from Galileo pay services. (The American military GPS sat nav system already offers a very adequate civil service for free.) The European Commission (EC) - the EU's full-time officials - broke off negotiations with business leaders earlier this year, and it was agreed in principle by national transport ministers that the missing money would come from public coffers.

Disagreements since then have focused on the source and channelling of the necessary funds. The EC has suggested that the cash could be mostly found from unspent farm subsidies, which would otherwise revert to donor nations. Thus far, the countries which pay more into the EU that they get out (the UK, Holland and Germany) have opposed this plan, saying that instead the European Space Agency (ESA - a separate international body which occasionally cooperates with the EU but is not part of it) should take the lead.

The EC plan to divert farm subsidies would have suited France well. The French military in particular are uncomfortable with their present reliance on US sat nav, which can be denied or degraded in conflict zones at Washington's discretion. Satellite location services may or may not be critical to civilian economies, but they are genuinely very important for military operations of many kinds.

The UK, disposing of the other major European armed forces apart from France, has a much more comfortable military relationship with America. Britain, Germany and Holland also perceive the farm-subsidy plan as placing a disproportionate share of the expense on their treasuries - while benefit (and contracts) would be shared with other countries across Europe.

Now, however, it appears that France's new, more Atlanticist president may have managed to find some common ground with Ms Merkel. Any French plan enjoying solid German support would probably be difficult for the UK and Holland to resist next month.

Chancellor Merkel said she regretted that "many delays had accumulated since the beginning of this project".

Galileo was supposed to go live next year, but cannot now stand up much sooner than 2013 - assuming that an agreement can indeed be reached soon.

AFP coverage of the press conference is here. ®

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