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date: 20 September 2017

The European Union Space Policy

Summary and Keywords

The European Union Space Policy (EUSP) is one of the lesser known and, consequently, little understood policies of the European Union (EU). Although the EU added outer space as one of its competences in 2009 with the ratification of the Lisbon Treaty, the EUSP roots go back decades earlier.

Officially at least, there is no EUSP as such, but rather a European Space Policy (ESP). The ESP combines in principle space programs and competences that cut across three levels of governance: the supranational (EU), the international (intergovernmental), and the national. However, since the EU acquired treaty competences on outer space, it is clear that a nascent EUSP has emerged, even if no one yet dares calling it by its name.

Currently, three EU space programs stand out: Galileo, Copernicus, and EGNOS. Galileo is probably the better known and more controversial of the three. Meant to secure European independence from the U.S. global positioning system by putting in orbit a constellation of European satellites, Galileo has been plagued by several problems. One of them was the collapse of the public–private partnership funding scheme in 2006, which nearly killed it. However, instead of marking the end of EUSP, the termination of the public–private partnership served as a catalyst in its favor. Furthermore, research findings indicate that the European Parliament envisioned an EUSP long before the European Commission published its first communication in this regard. This is a surprising yet highly interesting finding because it highlights the fact that in addition to the Commission or the European Court of Justice, the European Parliament is a thus far neglected policy entrepreneur. Overall, the development of the EUSP is an almost ideal case study of European integration by stealth, largely in line with the main principles of two related European integration theories: neofunctionalism and historical institutionalism.

Since EUSP is a relatively new policy, the existing academic literature on this policy is also limited. This has also to do with the degree of public interest in outer space in general. Outer space’s popularity reached its heyday during the Cold War era. Today space, in Europe and in other continents, has to compete harder than ever for public attention and investment. Still, research on European space cooperation is growing, and there are reasons to be optimistic about its future.

Keywords: Copernicus, European integration, European Space Policy, European Union, European Union Space Policy, Galileo, outer space


The literature on the European Union Space Policy (EUSP) is cluttered with a number of acronyms. In addition to EUSP and ESP (European Space Policy), cryptic terms such as GMES, GNSS, GSA, GALILEO (or Galileo), and so on, appear in the literature all too often. Their increased use implies a literature that tends to be technical and a readership that is composed primarily of experts. It is assumed, and unfortunately rightly so, that the general reader is unlikely to be interested in the complexities of outer space policy. Humankind has already been to the moon, and Mars exploration has thus far failed to trigger the public interest comparable to that seen in the mid-20th century.

The relatively limited appeal of outer space is one of the more important challenges for the EU’s space policymakers. It is also one reason why EUSP is a niche policy and why the scholarly community working on it is relatively small. This is at odds with the (growing) significance of the policy itself. Outer space is no longer the exclusive preserve of engineers, astronomers, or astronauts. It can be exploited in ways that are useful and relevant for citizens throughout the world. Increasingly, the public is relying on space applications for communications, the global positioning of persons and objects, transport, management of natural disasters, regional and global security and stability—and the list keeps growing.

Given that space is important, expensive, and dangerous, it is particularly interesting that the EU, a supranational entity to which sovereign member states have ceded part of their powers, has a role to play.

EUSP Context and Terminology

Officially, there is no EU space policy. The latest EU treaty, the Treaty on the Functioning of the EU), also known as the Lisbon Treaty, identifies a European rather than an EU space policy. Among nonexperts, the terms EU and European are often (and wrongly) used interchangeably, but they do not have the same meaning. In the present context, ESP refers to a policy enshrined in an EU treaty, which combines space policies and programs that cut across three governance levels: the supranational (the EU), the intergovernmental (mostly via the European Space Agency), and the national.1 EUSP refers to the EU component of the broader (in terms of governance and policy scope) ESP.

Nevertheless, there are several reasons to call the EU component of ESP the “European Union space policy.” First, since 2009, when the Lisbon Treaty was ratified, the EU has acquired formal competences to initiate, develop, and run space programs if it wants to. Second, the EU already has three prominent space programs, namely, Galileo, EGNOS (European Geostationary Navigation Overlay Service), and Copernicus. In addition, it is a major funding source for space research through the Horizon 2020 program, and it is interested in the security dimension of space and in space exploration as well. Third, all these programs predate the Lisbon Treaty. Suzuki (2003), Sheehan (2007), and Krige (2014) locate the origins of European space collaboration in the early 1960s, and Sigalas (2016) provides evidence that the parliament of the EU (the European Parliament) began talking openly about EU (European Communities at the time) involvement in space as early as the 1970s.

Galileo is currently the EU’s most important and prestigious space program. Once it becomes fully operational, it will constitute a constellation of 30 satellites that will provide a global positioning service, independent from, yet interoperable with, the U.S.s GPS and the Russian GLONASS positioning systems.2 It is one of the few pieces of EU infrastructure that the EU actually owns.3 The program’s name, a tribute to the 16th-century astronomer, was chosen personally by Neil Kinnock, then the European Commissioner for Transport.4 Previously, it was known simply as GNSS or the Global Navigation Satellite System.

EGNOS is already operational. Predating and complementing Galileo, it is a satellite-based augmentation system that aims to improve the accuracy of satellite navigation signals. It was designed before the decision to create Galileo was taken, in order to boost the weaker GPS signal that the U.S. authorities allowed their European counterparts to use. It is not perfectly clear what EGNOS’s role will be when the EU no longer needs GPS, but one assumes that it will be used to augment Galileo’s signal.

Copernicus was until recently known as GMES (Global Monitoring for the Environment and Security). It is an Earth observation program providing European authorities with autonomous intelligence based on satellite data. It was “designed to support sustainable development policies in areas such as the environment, agriculture, fisheries, transport and regional development. More specifically, it will provide support for objectives ‘linked to the implementation of a Common Foreign and Security Policy as well as to allow early warning and rapid damage assessment in natural disasters’” (Sheehan, 2007, p. 89).

The Development of the EUSP

The European Union Space Policy may not be a fully fledged policy, especially compared to other long-standing EU policies, such as the Common Agricultural Policy or Maritimes Affairs and Fisheries, but it is moving toward this direction.

Much of the scholarly attention has thus far focused on international or European, instead of EU-level space cooperation. Sheehan (2007), Krige (2014), and Suzuki (2003) produced useful, insightful monographs on the history and development of space policy cooperation, but the treatment of EU-level activity in this regard is confined to just one chapter in each case. As a result, the nascent role of the EU in space politics does not get due attention.

As soon as the EU leaders decided to go ahead and fund a satellite-navigation system independent of the U.S. American GPS, the EU became a space force to be reckoned with, although clearly not the most important or powerful on a global scale. Publications on the EU and its relation to the European GNSS/Galileo started to emerge, even if EU space politics and policy remain marginal in most, if not all, relevant streams of academic literature (i.e., EU studies, EU public policy, political science, international law, etc.). Thus, two edited volumes (Hörber & Stephenson, 2016; Hörber & Sigalas, 2017) have been published recently where most chapters deal explicitly with EU space policy or aspects thereof. (Of course, there have been publications on EUSP before; these are dealt with in the following section.)

Since the Lisbon Treaty, the EU has shared competences on space with the EU member states. As article 2c, paragraph 3 of the treaty states, “in the area[s] of . […] space, the Union shall have competence to carry out activities, in particular to define and implement programmes; however, the exercise of that competence shall not result in Member States being prevented from exercising theirs.” Consequently, the EU may not have a carte blanche on space, but it has all the legal backing it needs to pursue a fully fledged EU space policy. This process has already started.

Sigalas (2016, 2017) tries to demonstrate that the EUSP in its current form is the result of a long developmental process that involves the ingenuity of the EU’s supranational actors (especially the European Parliament and the European Commission) to expand the EU’s competences. In particular, the author tried to adapt the premises of historical institutionalism to show that, because of path-dependence, supranational autonomy, and certain important external developments (critical junctures), EUSP found its way in the Lisbon Treaty.

According to this analysis, the first EU involvement in space affairs was through the EU’s research programs.5 The Single European Act (SEA), which gave the EU more competences on research, consolidated that involvement. Given that agriculture was a major EU policy from the beginning and that the SEA gave the EU some powers over environmental affairs (Bainbridge & Teasdale, 1995), an interest in Earth observation formed early on (Suzuki, 2003).6

Initially, the Commission’s activities on Earth observation were confined to software applications and organization of data providers and users (Suzuki, 2003). By 1992, it had expanded its ambitions and the Commission, in close cooperation with the French space agency, launched the first Earth observation program called Vegetation. The successor of Vegetation was GMES/Copernicus, which was the end result of the European Strategy for Space, itself an initiative of the European Space Agency (ESA).7 The EU Council and the Commission decided to join ESA in preparing a strategy for space, and a common text was adopted by both organizations in 2000 (Suzuki, 2003).

The EU Treaty of Maastricht (1993) saw the launch of the Common Foreign and Security Policy. The Treaty of Amsterdam (1999) incorporated the Petersburg Tasks, which enabled the EU to engage in peacekeeping and rescue missions. Furthermore, the 1999 European Council of Helsinki set out to develop a European Rapid Reaction Force. Hence, the ESA-EU European Strategy for Space called for an observation program aimed to tackle not only environmental but also security challenges marking the birth of GMES/Copernicus.

Galileo is also the result of close cooperation between the Commission and ESA. Again, the initiative came from ESA, which initially perceived the EU’s involvement in space as an opportunity to advance ESA’s own interests. Bringing the EU into the space game carried not only the promise of extra funding, but also the reassurance that there would be a clientele to buy what ESA was developing. In other words, the coming together of the two organizations was perceived as a natural and mutually beneficial process.

Before the Galileo program, the Commission had dealt with satellites through the EU’s telecommunications and satellite television programs. In 1998, Matthias Rüte (Director of the Commission’s Directorate General Transport at the time) received instructions from his superior, the Commissioner for Transport (Neil Kinnock), to “look at [GNSS] and either kill it or make something more substantive out of it.”8 Rüte, convinced that the EU had to continue work on satellite navigation, recommended to the Commissioner that the program be advanced. The result was the 1999 Council resolution on GNSS.

However, Galileo is the outcome not only of planned policymaking, but also of its unanticipated consequences and external developments. During the 1999 Kosovo war, the U,S. military authorities blocked the civilian GPS signal, causing significant disruptions for civil aviation in the wider area (Jones, 2007). This occurrence made European leaders appreciate the usefulness of satellite navigation. Consequently, they also realized that the continuous availability of a GPS signal was too important to be dependent on the willingness of the U.S authorities to provide it, even if the United States offered it for free and was willing to remove the restriction of selected availability.

Galileo’s funding was always a divisive issue. The EU member states were divided roughly into three groups: (1) those who had an advanced space industry and were in favor of Galileo (especially France, Germany, and Belgium, but also Spain and Italy); (2) those who were skeptical, if not inimical (particularly the UK and the Netherlands); and (3) the rest, who were simply following the lead of the Commission. To overcome the reservations of the UK and the Netherlands, it was agreed that Galileo would be in part funded by private funds through a public–private partnership scheme. Few could foresee the unanticipated, yet grave, consequences of this decision. The private sector was not that keen on bearing the risks, and the public–private partnership proved too ambitious (Feyerer, 2016). As a result, the public–private partnership collapsed in 2006. The EU member states now faced a difficult dilemma: either abandon Galileo completely and lose the money they had already invested, or make a big step forward and fund Galileo solely from the EU purse. Proving historical institutionalism right, which maintains that sunk costs result in a lock-in effect, the EU member states chose the latter option.

The survival of Galileo made the inclusion of a space article in the Lisbon Treaty easier. According to Jack Metthey (European Commission, Directorate General Research and Innovation), the question arose naturally: “What’s the next step? Do we go for a fully-fledged space policy? […] In those days we were entering the so-called [European constitutional] convention process […] and of course the idea came, quite naturally, to seize this opportunity […] and then we did all the necessary lobbying […] Gradually you just build the momentum and ultimately we managed to get space embedded in the Lisbon Treaty.”

Interestingly enough, ESA also embraced the idea of having a space article in the Lisbon Treaty “because they saw it as an opportunity to give more visibility to space.”9 However, the increasingly closer cooperation between the two appears to be leading to another unanticipated consequence: the possibility that ESA may be absorbed by the EU.10

The question of how and why the EUSP developed the way it did is one that has preoccupied other authors as well. Only a few, however, have tried to link their explanations with a theoretical account. In brief, Köpping-Athanasopoulos (2017) argues that Commission officials have drawn on the European integration theory of neofunctionalism to promote a space policy. He shares with Sigalas (2017) the premise that the EU’s supranational institutions have played an active role in pushing for more EU participation in space affairs and, consequently, for creating an EU Space Policy within the broader European Space Policy. Oikonomou (2017) puts the emphasis on global capitalism and the European nations representing powerful economic interests. For him, the EUSP is the result of “intra-imperialist” competition. Galileo “constitutes a case study of how industrial interests and the need for competitive survival and expansion are serviced through EU space policy” (Oikonomou, 2017, p. 167). Giannopapa et al. (2017) also refer to a European integration theory to describe the EUSP, but they assume rather than prove the validity of liberal-intergovernmentalism, a theory maintaining that the EU national governments, and not the supranational institutions, are the real power-holders.

Suzuki (2003) provides one of the more sophisticated and better developed theoretical frameworks of European space policy cooperation. Even though, as already noted, the primary focus of this work is cross-European rather than intra-EU cooperation, the historical data he provides remain useful to those wishing to learn about the roots of the European Space Policy and consequently of the EUSP. Furthermore, Suzuki (2003) serves as a useful reminder that research that is theoretically driven and feeds back to the theory has much a better chance to stand out than purely technical or descriptive studies and reports.

In a way, Suzuki (2003) symbolizes the birth of the systematic and theory-driven analysis of the EUSP—not so much because it is one of the earlier publications also dealing with the EU’s space activities, but because it tries to relate these activities to theories commonly found in the EU studies literature. Suzuki (2003) breaks away from the international relations theoretical framework, which tends to characterize the study of international space cooperation. Instead, he draws on institutionalist and European integration theories, but even more on the notion of “policy logics,” to explain the development of European space cooperation.

Suzuki defines policy logic “as reasoning conducted according to a system of policy principles in which experts, group [sic] of experts, and decision-makers are committed to realize their respective objectives” (Suzuki, 2003, p. 22). Subsequently, he identifies different types of policy logic, such as the logics of science, technology, commerce, the military, autonomy, and finance. Each ESA and EU member state, he argues, has its own policy logics, which change over time in response to changes in the domestic and international environment. Thus, in the last period analyzed by Suzuki (2003), which coincides roughly with the beginning of the EUSP, the stance of bigger member states is driven by the logic of commerce and finance. For other European countries, the logic of technology promotion is apparently more important.

Unfortunately, Suzuki’s (2003) analysis ends before the rise and fall of the Galileo public–private partnership. As a result, he does not elaborate on the policy logic(s) of the EU, although he does identify a logic of autonomy in the European space strategy launched by ESA in 1999 (and later also adopted by the EU). It is, therefore, fortunate that the contributors of the Hörber and Stephenson (2016) volume pick up where Suzuki (2003) stopped.

The EUSP Literature: A Critical Review

The literature on the EUSP is very restricted. First, it includes few publications on the ESP and even fewer on the EUSP. Second, most of the publications belong to the so-called gray literature. In other words, they are mostly policy reports from ESA, its think-tank, the European Space Policy Institute (ESPI), the European Commission, and other international organizations.11 As such, they are not treated here.

Besides the gray literature, there have also been a few academic publications. Some of the more prominent monographs (Suzuki, 2003; Sheehan, 2007; Krige, 2014) have already been mentioned. In addition, there seems to be a handful of working papers (e.g., Pasco, 2010; Dickow, 2011) and a limited number of articles in academic journals, such as Space Policy, Astropolitics (e.g., McCormick, 2015), The RUSI Journal (e.g., Hayward, 2010), and the International Organizations Law Review (e.g., Mazurelle et al., 2009). The 2012 special issue of Space Policy presents articles about the European Commission and Galileo (Stephenson, 2012), the role of the European Parliament in the development of the EUSP (Sigalas, 2012), the security dimension of the EUSP (Oikonomou, 2012; Mutschler & Venet, 2012), and the EUSP’s potential to reinvigorate Europe’s industry (Hansen & Wouters, 2012), among others. Apparently, no articles on the EUSP have been published yet in mainstream EU studies journals, such as the Journal of European Public Policy, the Journal of Common Market Studies, and the Journal of European Integration; the one exception seems to be from Hörber (2009) in the Journal of Contemporary European Research.

The existing publications add to the EU space policy literature and are useful in their own way. However, with the exceptions mentioned later, nearly all of them are atheoretical, most of them descriptive, and often they resemble policy reports or opinion pieces rather than academic publications trying to answer a particular research question. Sometimes, this atheoretical bent is reflected in the title of the publications. For instance, “Carpe diem: Europe must make a genuine space policy now” (Madders & Thiebaut, 2007), or “Why Europe needs space as part of its security and defence policy” (Kolovos, 2002). Publications reporting positivist research with clearly defined theoretical frameworks, research questions, and methodology are relatively rare. Similarly, hardly any publications related to the EUSP follow the hypothetic-deductive research model in which concepts are operationalized and hypotheses are formally tested.

Probably one reason why the EUSP literature is still so underdeveloped and immature from a conceptual point of view is that the policy itself is new. Another reason is the limited popularity of outer space in general, about which more will be said in the following section. With time, it is hoped that the situation will improve and that more academic publications will move beyond description (or prescription). The fact that some publications touching on the EUSP (Suzuki, 2003; Sheehan, 2007) are theoretical (in the sense that they rely explicitly on a theoretical framework) is already a positive sign.

Hörber and Stephenson’s edited volume (2016) is possibly the first publication that places the relationship between EU and space at the forefront while featuring a theoretical framework. It is not known if Hörber and Stephenson (2016) planned their edited volume with the intention of carrying on what Suzuki (2003) had started more than 10 years earlier, but it appears that they did so. Clearly, elements of both continuity and discontinuity are found in a comparison of Suzuki (2003) and Hörber and Stephenson (2016). The most important link between the two is that both are interested in revealing the policy reasoning and discourse that led to the EUSP. The greatest difference lies in the conceptual framework used. Whereas Suzuki (2003) relies on the concept of policy logic, Hörber and Stephenson (2016) draw on framing.

Unfortunately, Hörber and Stephenson (2016) do not include a formal definition of “frame” and “framing” that is used consistently throughout the book. Quoting from Sigalas (2016, p. 66): “Chong and Druckman (2007a, p. 104) explained, ‘an issue can be viewed from a variety of perspectives and be construed as having implications for multiple values or consideration.’” Similarly, Entman (1993, p. 55) argued that “[f]rames call attention to some aspects of reality while obscuring other elements.” Thus, it appears that framing refers to a process of selective highlighting and contextualization, intending to promote certain perspectives at the expense of others. This in turn should make it easier for the EU decision makers to achieve their policy objectives.

The topics covered in the edited volume are diverse, ranging from how the EU institutions frame space (Marta & Stephenson, 2016; Köpping-Athanasopoulos, 2016; Forganni, 2016; Sigalas, 2016) to the (re-)framing of other policy areas to promote the EUSP (Adam, 2016; Carpenter, 2016; Stephenson, 2016), to the member states of the European Space Agency (Giannopapa et al., 2016) and the international dimension of space (La Regina, 2016), to chapters where the link with the framing theory is weaker. This is not the place to summarize the arguments developed by the different contributors in Hörber and Stephenson (2016). But given the sense of continuity with Suzuki (2003), it is useful to single out a few key findings related to the rationale behind the EUSP as this is being advertised by the EU institutions.

Marta and Stephenson (2016), who analyze Commission documents, reach the conclusion that different types of frames characterize the EUSP, namely, nascent, evolving, and mature. Within the mature types, the notions of independence, interoperability, and the environment seem to prevail. Similarly, content analysis on the EP resolutions Sigalas (2016) reveals that the EUSP justification frames vary strategically over time. Sigalas also shows that the notions of space independence and space, considered important because of their applications, are among the more prevalent. Köpping-Athanasopoulos (2016), who examines the dominant frames in the Council of European Union documents, argues that rational/instrumental frames, such as prosperity and independence, are typical. Lastly, Forganni (2016) explores the frames used by the EU Court of Justice. Since she examines two European case laws, the main frames she identifies (respect of the internal market, interests of the service beneficiary) are too specific to be comparable to the frames identified by the other authors.

Comparability would have been easier, and therefore the added value in the literature greater, had all contributors in Hörber and Stephenson (2016) agreed to a common conceptual framework. However, this problem is not confined to Hörber and Stephenson (2016), but rather is typical of many edited volumes. More often than not, individual contributors work independently from each other and rely on different research designs, which means there is little maneuvering room for the editor(s). Nevertheless, in the case of the Hörber and Stephenson (2016) volume, it is possible to identify European independence as an important justification frame for the Council, the Commission, and the European Parliament. In short, there is interinstitutional agreement, first, that having independent access to space is important and, second, that it is necessary to use this argument publicly, to justify the EU’s space activities and ambitions.

This finding is in line with Suzuki’s (2003) conclusion that the European Strategy for Space is marked by the logic of autonomy in space. It means that newer research confirms the validity of the findings of older research. More importantly, it means that knowledge in the field of EUSP research has already started accumulating!

Hopefully, another collective volume that has just been published will prove to be an equally useful contribution to the literature. Professor Hörber and the author cooperated with a team of scholars to prepare a book that links space policy to various theories and theoretical perspectives. In addition to the aforementioned chapters of Oikonomou (2017), Sigalas (2017), and Giannopapa et al. (2017) examining the development of the EUSP in relation to European integration theories, the book contains chapters that look at the EUSP through the lenses of framing theory (Stephenson, 2017), discourse theory (Hörber, 2017), empire theories (Kenneder, 2017), social constructivism (Kienzler, 2017), historical materialism (Oikonomou, 2017), international political economy (Lieberman, 2017), public economics and growth theory (Vaudo & Lahcen, 2017), international relations theories (Leissle, 2017), and democratic theory (Ryan, 2017).

Finally, a special issue of the journal Space Policy, co-edited by T. Hörber and H. Köpping-Athanasopoulos (2017). The special issue focuses on the topic of popularization of space and as such, for reasons that become obvious in the next section, it is a welcome addition to the literature. The choice of topics is broad, ranging from the role of social media (by L. Ryan) to space tourism (by A. Forganni), and science fiction (by H. Köpping-Athanasopoulos; G. Léa; and M. Alalinarde), including more generalist papers on the topic (by I. Oikonomou; N. Kerstens; and A. Thomas).12

Because the special issue contributors, as well as the authors in Hörber and Sigalas and in Hörber and Stephenson (2016), are mostly young academics, there is reason to be optimistic about the future of EUSP studies. One hopes that they will carry on the work on the EUSP and that they will inspire others to join them. To put it differently, the research community of EUSP is currently small, and it would clearly benefit if more scholars joined it. This brings us to the challenges associated with the academic study of EUSP.

Challenges in Study of the EUSP

The main problems in the field of EU space policy studies are the following:

  • The research community is relatively small, fragmented, and isolated.

  • The gray and technical literature is dominant.

  • Existing studies are mostly descriptive and atheoretical.

  • Public interest in space affairs is limited.

  • Interest in the EU (studies) is declining.

  • The European Space Policy is easily confused with the European Union Space Policy.

Interestingly enough, these problems are interrelated. Since only a few scholars are engaged in research on the EU’s space policy, it is no surprise that the academic literature, especially that stemming from high-quality research, is limited. Consequently, the ratio of academic to gray literature is low, and if one googles “EU space policy” one is unlikely to find any academic papers on the first page. Further research on the Internet yields mostly papers from the European Space Agency, which is not an EU institution, or from the European Space Policy Institute, which is not an EU institute. Add to that a European Union treaty that talks about a European rather than an EU space policy, and then it is easy to see why ESP and EUSP are sometimes used interchangeably, even though they mean different things.13 Again, a larger research community would have produced more literature, increasing the chances for research that focuses exclusively on EU space activities, ensuring the borders between the ESP and the EUSP remain visible.

Currently, the notion of outer space has a technical and obscure aspect. Notwithstanding the efforts of the EU, ESA, or even the space policy scholars, one feels that space concerns only scientists and politicians. Compared to a few decades ago, there are now far fewer films, novels, or radio shows about space. In short, outer space no longer captivates the public imagination as it once did. This loss of interest inevitably affects policymakers and academia as well. If public interest in space is relatively limited, politicians are unlikely to give it prominence on their agenda, and governments are unlikely to fund courses, degrees, or research on space policy.14 It follows then that the pool of researchers working on space policy, let alone on the EUSP, is small and will remain so as long as public interest is low.

An abundance of space policy reports or technical working papers does not make matters better. Only practitioners are likely to have an interest in them and then for only a short period of time. Publications on the latest space policy developments, technical or otherwise, go quickly out of date. In contrast, work that appeals to broader questions and interests has the potential to stand the test of time. Thus, theory-driven and theory-producing scientific publications on EUSP not only may make an important contribution to our collective knowledge, but also usually provide more interesting reading. In other words, theoretically informed publications are the means of triggering new interest in terms of readership or authorship in the EUSP.

Research interest in the EUSP is also undermined by the declining interest and investment in EU and European studies in some European countries, notably in the United Kingdom. If increasingly fewer students graduate in European or EU studies, inevitably fewer resources will be allocated to universities and research centers for this purpose. The causality sequence may be the other way around but is irrelevant here. What matters is the outcome. Waning interest in the EU implies waning interest in its space policy. Obviously, the UK’s withdrawal from the EU and the generally negative reporting on the EU are not too helpful either.


If there is reason for concern regarding the study of the EU’s space policy, there is also reason for rejoicing. As has been demonstrated, there is a growing academic community and, consequently, literature on the EUSP. This is the case despite the fact that the EU acquired official competences on space as late as 2009. Clearly, the EUSP research community is still small compared to the broader space policy research community.

Until recently, references to the EU were made in the context of a research agenda that encompassed the European rather than the EU space policy. On the one hand, this endows EUSP scholars with a pool of knowledge from which they can draw. On the other hand, as the EU’s activities and ambitions in outer space grow, so will the number of research questions, meaning that the EUSP is now big enough to merit research attention of its own.

Theories, such as neofunctionalism and historical institutionalism may be helpful in understanding the growth of EUSP, which was neither accidental nor completely planned.

Publications that are based on a research design that allows formal hypothesis testing, and consequently publications that build, amend, or refute theories, are still scarce. Existing studies tend to be exploratory and descriptive. Similarly, the use of qualitative data prevails over quantitative data. However, this state of affairs can change. Recent publications whose authors recognize the need for a sound research design and theoretical framework have been identified. Hopefully, in the near future research on the EUSP will be even more ambitious and sophisticated than it currently is. This depends not only on the scholars themselves, but also on the availability of resources, which in turn depend indirectly on the popularity of space. There is little academics can do in this regard, other than authoring intellectually stimulating work, and one can only hope that EUSP scholars will continue doing just that.


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(1.) The founding “convention” of the European Space Agency (signed in 1975 and ratified in 1980) refers explicitly to “elaborating and implementing a long-term European space policy” (ESA, 2010, Article II). Whether ESA’s European space policy coincides with the ESP mentioned in the Lisbon Treaty, or whether ESA or the EU is the primary operator of a European space policy are both very interesting questions, which unfortunately cannot be answered here. For the present purposes, ESP is seen through the prism of the Lisbon Treaty—that is, as a multilevel policy involving ESA among other actors, and not as an ESA policy involving the EU among other actors.

(3.) Personal interview with Alan Cooper (European Space Agency).

(4.) Personal interview with Matthias Rüte (European Commission).

(5.) Some of the EUSP development narrative draws on personal interview data. A detailed presentation of the sources can be found in Sigalas (2017).

(6.) Before 1991, the Commission “was already the largest customer for Earth observation data in Europe to implement its agricultural and environmental policies” (Suzuki, 2003, p. 188).

(7.) ESA cooperates with the EU to design and implement space programs, but it is an independent, intergovernmental organization.

(8.) Personal interview with Matthias Rüte.

(9.) Personal interview with Jack Metthey.

(10.) On the relationship between ESA and the EU, see Mazurelle et al. (2009). About the future of this relationship, see Hörber (2016).

(11.) Among other reports, ESPI publishes annually a yearbook on space policy. In addition to an overview of the latest space policy and space activity developments throughout the world, the yearbook tends also to host a number of expert contributions, some of which may have an academic character.

(12.) Since the special issue has not been published yet and the final titles are unknown to the author, it is not mentioned in the references list.

(13.) On the difference between ESP and EUSP, see the section EUSP Context and Terminology, but also footnote no. 2.

(14.) In 2012, only 38% of Europeans had heard of GMES/Copernicus and 57% of Galileo (Flash Eurobarometer no. 355).Furthermore, according to the 2014 Special Eurobarometer 403, Europeans seem to be more interested in terrestrial issues, such as employment and health.