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UK.gov on Galileo: We can't stop it, just sign the cheque

Orbital gravy train off the rails

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The British government has responded to MPs' concerns regarding the ongoing Galileo Euro sat nav programme. In the view of Her Majesty's ministers the scheme can't be stopped, so there isn't much point arguing about it.

MPs on the parliamentary transport committee last year handed Galileo a slamming in their report into the project. They said the decision to proceed had been "pressed through in an unacceptable manner", and "the Galileo programme provides a textbook example of how not to run large-scale infrastructure projects".

According to the government response, published today:

We believe... that the clear direct benefits to the UK, together with the wider potential benefits to the UK and European economies from the Galileo system operating alongside GPS, justify the United Kingdom's continuing support for the project.

Galileo is intended to orbit a constellation of navigation and timing satellites with global coverage, offering a service like that of the existing American GPS system. Galileo would deliver enhanced accuracy over the current Block II GPS, though this will be matched in time as GPS Block III reaches orbit. The Euro and US systems are designed to be interoperable, so that users will be able to use both satellite fleets at once to achieve ultimate performance.

Originally Galileo was to have been paid for in large part by industrial concerns, who would recoup their cash by charging users for pay services. However, with GPS offering adequate free coverage, the corporate world couldn't foresee any revenue stream substantial enough to justify billions upfront, and now the bills will be footed using diverted EU farm subsidies.

The public financing plan was put together by unelected Brussels officials, and approved last Novermber after byzantine closed-doors pork-barrel manoeuvring without any serious public debate. According to the transport-committee members, this was not the way such things should be decided. In fact:

The process for reaching a decision on the future of Galileo and its funding is impenetrably complex. We fear that this complexity... is creating an unstoppable momentum for a very expensive decision that is not supported by any robust evidence... the jury is out on the continued rationale for Galileo... the processes and institutions of the European Union are in danger of falling into disrepute if Galileo is allowed to continue in its present form.

The MPs say that the UK will pay almost a fifth of the cost of Galileo, other big payers being Germany and Holland. The British legislators aren't convinced that Blighty will see any benefits justifying the investment, the more so as the costs will probably escalate. Indeed, they suggest that the estimates have been deliberately kept low in order to rob nations of any chance to unilaterally veto the plans.

Costs of the Galileo programme have increased at every stage of its history. We have no reason to believe that even the very substantial costs now estimated... bear any significant relationship to the likely outturn... the best cost-benefit solution at this stage might be to scrap the programme entirely... The Galileo train appears to have left the station without a qualified driver or anyone to apply the brakes... the fact that the budget increase required on this occasion has fallen short of the 0.03% threshold which would trigger the unanimity procedure might be viewed with a degree of scepticism. We recommend that the UK Government strongly resist any attempt to smuggle major budget increases through as a series of incremental changes...

However, the transport committee members do concede that "the Government on its own does not have the power to stop, or to impose changes on the Galileo project". And in fact they have no concrete suggestions as to how it could be scrapped unless the EU at large agreed.

For its part, the government seems to be pretending that it's completely happy with Galileo - which is just as well, as it seems to have no option not to be. HM Ministers say the other nations pretending to object to Galileo were merely holding out for more of the pork; and that they don't mind having UK taxpayers' money appropriated, even if the UK disagrees:

Despite the uncertainties about the overall level of benefits that Galileo might deliver it would be entirely wrong to ignore the real direct benefits... for the UK from the likely growth in satellite navigation applications that will result from the deployment of Galileo operating alongside GPS... no blocking minority against the [funding plans] could have been sustained... a number of member states were aligning themselves with a potential-blocking minority only in order to pursue industrial interests... [But even so] The Government supports qualified majority voting; it has allowed us to unlock decision making and promote a number of the UK's priorities...

In other words, then, it doesn't really matter whether Galileo is worthwhile - it's happening and that's that. All the UK can do is try to grab back as much of its own money as it can, and try to make sure that the system is as good as possible. ®

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