Background Briefing: The Government’s Approach to the GALILEO project


On Thursday 24 May, the Government published its position paper on future UK participation in the EU’s GALILEO satellite navigation project, which has become a bone of contention in the negotiations, with the Government very clear that it would like to continue to participate in the project post-Brexit, at odds with the European Commission’s stance on this.[1]

This briefing paper outlines Open Britain’s top lines and our assessment of the Government’s position paper, as published today.

Brief overview of the GALILEO project

The EU’s GALILEO project is a satellite navigation system, providing timing and positioning information. It has 18 satellites in operation and is currently operating in a trial period. It operates three services: an open, public service; a public regulated service, providing encrypted information for Government services, including during times of emergency or crisis; and finally providing data relevant to search and rescue operations.[2]     


What are the main issues?

  • Despite its aim to take the UK out of the European Union, the Government would like to keep the UK in the GALILEO system.
  • Given that data provided by the programme is relevant for security issues, the Government are essentially tying UK participation in GALILEO to all future UK-EU co-operation.[3]
  • In the eventuality that the UK is not allowed to participate in the GALILEO project, the Government are threatening the establishment of a rival satellite system, with estimates suggesting this could cost up to £3.7bn.[4]


Top Lines

  • The GALILEO satellite project is a vital part of pan-European security and data cooperation and leaving it would have serious and damaging consequences.
  • This is yet another area of the negotiations where the Government's red lines are hurting the national interest. Ministers have woken up to the importance of this issue far too late.
  • Linking security co-operation with one particular EU programme flies in the face of previous Government statements that the UK is committed to the security of the European Continent.  
  • With the costs of Brexit increasing by the day, following revelations over the costs of new customs operations with the EU post-Brexit, the Government need to come clean about the cost of establishing a rival UK satellite navigation system to rival GALILEO.
  • Nobody voted to make our country less safe and if leaving the EU threatens our security we must have a People’s Vote on the final Brexit deal.


In Detail


  • The language in the document suggests the UK is not “unconditionally committed” to maintaining the current level of security cooperation. It notes that “Current EU restrictions on UK participation will have implications for the ceiling placed on future UK-EU security cooperation”. This is in contrast to Theresa May’s remarks at the Munich Security Conference in February 2018, where she said: “Europe’s security is our security. And that is why I have said – and I say again today - that the United Kingdom is unconditionally committed to maintaining it.”[5]
  • The Government now acknowledges that there is no existing EU security relationship with a third country that matches what we currently have. The Government must therefore be clear with the public about what the risks of Brexit are, in the event that Brexit means the UK is no longer be able to participate in GALILEO.


Rule maker to rule taker:

  • The Government makes clear it does not seek full participation in GALILEO, and accepts that the UK would not seek to participate in all aspects of the programme. The paper also notes that the UK would be prepared to continue to pay for access despite no longer being a full member. This begs the question as to whether the Government is openly in favour of being a rule-taker, if it is admitting that the UK would not be present in the room for key decisions.
  • It is also ironic, as pointed out by the Former UK Permanent Representative to the EU, Sir Ivan Rogers, that when GALILEO was in its infancy, the UK was against it getting off the ground, compared with Ministers falling over themselves desperately trying to keep the UK in the project but no longer having a say over it.[6]


Rising Brexit costs:

  • Today’s document is yet another reminder of the costs of Brexit over the past 48 hours. On 23 May, the Chief Executive of HMRC, Jon Thompson, noted that Government’s “maximum facilitation” customs plan would cost businesses up to £20bn and the customs’ partnership could cost up to £3.5bn.[7] This came on the heels of Mark Carney, the Governor of the Bank of England, having noted on 22 May, that Brexit had wiped out 2% in lost growth and £900 from household incomes in comparison to the pre-Brexit economic forecast from May 2016.[8]
  • With the Government announcing today that “UK is therefore exploring alternatives to fulfil its needs for secure and resilient position, navigation and timing information, including the option for a domestic satellite system”, it needs to explain what the costs of such a satellite system would be, where it has been estimated by the Financial Times that the costs would amount to £3.7bn[9]