In the contemporary global landscape, space policy has emerged as a critical component for advancing national interests and fostering international cooperation. For Europe, a comprehensive and forward-thinking EU space policy is not only a strategic imperative but also a cornerstone for enhancing security and driving economic growth. By leveraging space-based technologies and infrastructure, the EU can strengthen its defence capabilities, boost its economic competitiveness, and support environmental stewardship.

Space technologies can be used, among others, to identify structures for urban planning, employ global navigation satellite systems, Earth observation, and to produce space-based data which enhances climate models, improving the understanding of climate dynamics and helping to develop effective mitigation and adaptation strategies.

Moreover, innovations developed for space missions and technologies such as satellite imaging and telecommunications have widespread applications on Earth, boosting productivity and efficiency in different types of industries, from agriculture to logistics.

The EU Space Policy in a nutshell

Following the Lisbon Reform of 2007, the Treaty on the European Union and the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union introduced the European Space Policy for the first time. This policy expanded the European Union’s scope to develop space-related initiatives. Since then, the EU’s space programs have played a crucial role in advancing research and technological innovation by supporting industries in the sector and coordinating efforts for space exploration and utilization. The EU Space Programme, part of the multiannual financial framework (MFF) for 2021-2027, aims to establish and sustain the EU’s leadership in the space industry.

The European Union space policy addresses several key political priorities, including the European Green Deal and strengthening Europe’s global presence, by tackling critical issues such as climate change, stimulating technological innovation, and providing socio-economic benefits to citizens. This policy includes the EU space program and works in synergy with EU space research and innovation initiatives (Horizon EU), focusing on competitiveness in space systems and access to space. The strategic research and innovation agenda underpins these efforts, supporting competitiveness and InvestEU. Moreover, the EU space policy aims to foster entrepreneurship and promote the development of a new space ecosystem within the EU, enhancing the space industry, with one of the key priorities included in the strategy being to ensure that Europe has its own launch capabilities and access to space without reliance on external entities.

The development of space policy has been driven by three main programs: Galileo, which provides global positioning data; Copernicus, an advanced Earth observation program; and EGNOS, which offers essential navigation services to users in air, sea, and land transport across Europe. These programs contribute to the sustainability goals of the EU. For example, the Copernicus Climate Change Service continuously observes the Earth’s climate and its changes, offering data on historical, current and future climate conditions in Europe and globally. This service delivers crucial indicators on essential variables like temperature, sea ice, and CO2 levels, making it an invaluable resource for shaping national policies, strategies and planning. It also supports European adaptation and mitigation efforts to effectively implement the Paris Agreement. On the other hand, Galileo delivers highly accurate positioning and navigation signals, crucial for monitoring and mapping applications. These applications supply important information on natural events, soil and crop conditions, and facilitate rapid responses in emergencies.

Another landmark reached in the domain of space policy was in 2022, when EU leaders identified space as a strategic domain in the Strategic Compass and called for an EU Space Strategy for Security and Defence. Building on this political momentum, the Commission and the High Representative have developed the first-ever EU Space Strategy for Security and Defence. The Strategy proposes actions to strengthen the resilience and protection of space systems and services in the EU, outlining the counterspace capabilities and main threats in space that put at risk space systems and their ground infrastructure, building on a common definition of the space domain.

Challenges to EU Space policy

Similar to other sectors, the European Union faces challenges in presenting a unified stance on space issues, which complicates matters both within Europe and on the international stage.

Several factors contribute to this disharmony. First of all, space policy has been historically a national concern, with Member States retaining certain powers in this area, as outlined in Article 189 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU). This article allows “joint initiatives, support [to] research and technological development and coordination of the efforts needed for the exploration and exploitation of space”. The EU lacks the authority to harmonise national laws in the space sector, allowing Member States to enact their own legislation in emerging areas such as space resource exploitation and space traffic management, hindering efforts to establish a unified regulatory framework at the EU level. Consequently, the approach each Member State takes in the space sector varies significantly. For instance, French space policy is closely tied to defence, whereas German space policy is primarily civilian-focused.

Adding to this complexity, different entities oversee the space sector in Europe – the Commission, the External Action Service (EEAS), the European Union Agency for the Space Programme (EUSPA), European intergovernmental organizations as the European Space Agency (ESA) and some key Member States with national space agencies. The Commission, particularly through the DG DEFIS, plays a dual role by initiating the legislative process with proposals for the EU Space Programme and overseeing its implementation. EUSPA, formerly known as GSA, is the EU’s decentralized agency responsible for the Space Programme. The ESA, founded in 1975, is an independent international organization with 22 members, which include non-EU countries like Switzerland, Norway and the UK. In 2004, the Commission and the ESA signed an agreement clearly defining their separate roles. The ESA has the technical expertise to implement space programs and manages the development of European space science and exploration initiatives. The EU, on the other hand, focuses on regulation and has the financial resources to invest in large, long-term space projects, while also facilitating Member State use of EU space infrastructure, services and data.

Thus, space competencies and capabilities at European level are divided into several different layers of governance, not all of which are fully controlled by the EU, negatively impacting the EU’s capacity to pursue strategic autonomy in this domain.

Therefore, the EU Space Policy has the potential to advance the EU’s goals of sustainability and competitiveness, but the current challenges hinder its effective implementation.