Science News

MPs take aim at EU satellite project

LONDON (Reuters) - Britain must try to prevent a European Union satellite navigation system from going ahead until its costs, risks and benefits have been thoroughly assessed, lawmakers said on Monday.

The Houses of Parliament and the Big Ben are seen before the State Opening of Parliament in London, in this file photo from Nov. 6, 2007. REUTERS/Alessia Pierdomenico

Parliament’s transport committee said it had serious concerns about the merits of the 3.4 billion euro (2.4 billion pound) project and the way the European Commission plans to fund it.

The system aims to compete with the U.S. Global Positioning System (GPS). It has faced a 2.4 billion euro funding shortfall because private companies have been reluctant to foot the bill.

The European Commission has proposed plugging the hole mainly with unused agriculture funds and some from the EU’s scientific research project. Unused funds earmarked for EU projects are usually returned to national coffers.

“The government must stop this folly and endeavour to bring the European Commission to its senses,” said Gwyneth Dunwoody, Labour chairman of the transport committee.

“The Commission is poised to spend billions of taxpayers’ money on a satellite system without any realistic assessment of its costs and benefits” and to “break all the rules for prudent budgetary discipline” in order to fund it, she said.

The European Commission said all EU countries had given their backing to the project and its cost estimates were sound.

“The figures ... have been double-checked by the European Space Agency and national space agencies of the member states and an independent contractor,” said spokesman Michele Cercone. “It’s crystal clear and it’s based on solid ground.”

He said proposed financing from the EU budget would cost less than covering loans and risk for the private sector to carry out the project.

“It’s just a question of logic ... we owe it to our taxpayers to give them best value for money and this means we take the responsibility of building the infrastructure ourselves with the same money or even less.”

The committee’s report noted only one test satellite had been launched for the Galileo programme, which should have 30 satellites if completed.

The project is five years behind schedule, it said.

Like the GPS, Galileo would exchange radio signals with devices on the ground, letting users pinpoint their location.

Some analysts have questioned the project’s viability because the GPS, developed by the U.S. military, operates free of charge. They also say there will be delays and cost overruns, with taxpayers certain to be asked to foot the bill.

For many politicians, Galileo is a question of pride and technological independence.

Advocates say it would offer greater accuracy and reliability as well as create thousands of jobs, and prove the EU is not falling behind China and Russia, which are developing similar systems.

“What taxpayers in the United Kingdom and other European countries really need and want is better railways and roads, not giant signature projects in the sky, providing services that we already have from GPS and other systems,” Dunwoody said.

“We have asked the government to ensure that the UK parliament has the opportunity to scrutinise and debate this project properly ... before a decision is made at European level.”

Reporting by Sophie Walker in London and David Brunnstrom in Brussels; Editing by Catherine Evans