European Commission Wants Individual Nations To Fund GMES

The Sentinel 2 satellite will be part of the GMES program.
© ESA

The European Commission, in a surprise move, is proposing that its satellite-based Earth observation program be removed from its seven-year budget starting in 2014 and instead be funded by voluntary contributions from individual European governments.

The decision to take the Global Monitoring for Environment and Security (GMES) effort off the commission’s books just as it begins operations drew immediate criticism from a group representing European geo-information companies. In a July 19 statement, the European Association of Remote Sensing Companies (EARSC) says the commission’s decision will leave GMES stillborn.

"Taking GMES funding outside the usual European Commission budget “just at the moment that the space segment will be launched… will create high uncertainty [that] the EU would withdraw from GMES while it has not reached maturity yet. No partners would be in a position to take over the prominent role played so far by the EU."

The European Union (EU), through the commission, has co-financed early GMES development with the 19-nation European Space Agency (ESA). The two organizations have invested some 2.3 billion euros ($3.2 billion) to date in developing the Sentinel series of GMES satellites, and in providing seed money for a GMES services sector. Up to now, it had been assumed that GMES and the Galileo satellite navigation project — the two so-called “flagship” European Union space programs — would secure long-term funding for the commission’s next budget cycle, which covers the period from 2014 through 2020. The European Parliament, the European Council, which includes ministers from European Union member states, and the commission itself have all endorsed GMES and Galileo in recent months.

The proposed budget is by no means the last word. Nearly two years of negotiations with the parliament and with individual governments still lie ahead. Still, the proposal to jettison GMES surprised those most involved with the program. Equally surprising to these GMES observers was the commission’s reasoning.

"[F]or projects such as … GMES, where the costs and/or cost overruns are too large to be borne only by the EU budget, the commission proposes to foresee their funding outside the [Multi-annual Financial Framework] after 2013,” the budget proposal, released June 29, says in explaining the move."

EARSC found that statement particularly galling. "It is a specious argument to take this major backward step on GMES," the association says in its July 19 statement, adding that GMES is on time and within its budget. That cannot be said for the other flagship program, Galileo, a 30-satellite constellation whose mission is to provide the same positioning, navigation and timing services provided by the U.S. GPS program. The commission’s most recent estimates are that Galileo will exceed its 3.4 billion-euro budget by around 1.4 billion euros.

Despite this, Galileo has found a home in the multiyear budget. The commission proposes a seven-year Galileo budget of 7 billion euros, a figure that includes completing the construction and launch of the first generation of satellites, operating the system and beginning work on a second-generation system. “A sufficient budget for its needs is proposed as part of this package,” the commission says, adding that Galileo will still need to work to reduce the expected cost overruns. For GMES, the commission cites a figure of 834 million euros per year that would be proposed, a la carte, to member states that would make individual decisions on whether to subscribe, and for how much. A similar mechanism is proposed for the ITER next-generation nuclear energy facility, whose budget, like that of Galileo, has far exceeded original estimates.

One European government official familiar with GMES’s status at the commission said the budget proposal may be a tactical maneuver by the commission. By this reasoning, the commission would be seeking to provoke a protest on behalf of GMES that could give the commission an excuse to raise its overall seven-year budget request.

A diverse set of companies in Europe has been developing services for GMES, many under programs that have required co-financing by the companies alongside monies provided by ESA or the commission. EARSC says much of the private investment was made despite the fact that returns were not expected before 2015. If the commission now puts GMES in financial limbo, it will be difficult to secure further private-sector participation, according to the association.

“Further delays and uncertainty greatly undermine the industrial effort and make projects linked to GMES very unattractive,” EARSC says in its statement. “The funding uncertainty will certainly reduce, or even cancel, future private commitments.”

GMES backers have said repeatedly that the ecosystem of customers and providers of GMES services will develop only if its participants believe the program has a long-term viability.