In 2020, when the United Kingdom bid farewell to the EU, it also paused its engagement in pivotal programmes like Horizon Europe and Copernicus. Horizon Europe, a beacon of innovation funding, and Copernicus, the eye in the sky offering Earth Observation (EO) capabilities, remained distant for the UK.
However, a new accord signals the UK’s return to these instrumental programmes, reinvigorating its space and research landscape. While the spotlight often graces the research upliftment courtesy of Horizon, the unsung hero, Copernicus, is set to substantially boost the UK’s EO and security apparatus.
The Struggles and Adaptations
Before the split, the UK Space Agency delineated its EO aspirations, leaning heavily on collaborations within and beyond the European Space Agency (ESA). The intent was clear – to harness EO for economic, scientific, and societal gains. The Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA) update in 2021 aimed to outline the UK’s space odyssey post-Brexit, but it faced hurdles.
“In an attempt to pressure the UK to fully implement the NI Protocol,” the EU halted the protocols’ adoption.
In this observer role, the UK’s access to Copernicus was tethered to open-source data, a limitation that strained its EO capabilities for sensitive missions including border and maritime surveillance. The UK government’s response was a pledge of £200 million in 2022 to EO activities, a commitment stemming from “the EU’s continued delays to UK association to the Copernicus programme.”
A Renewed Alliance
The breakthrough arrived on 7th September 2023 – a renewed pact granting the UK a ticket back into the Horizon and Copernicus sanctuaries. Ursula von der Leyen, the European Commission President, endorsed this rekindling, stating:
“The EU and UK are key strategic partners and allies, and today’s agreement proves that point. We will continue to be at the forefront of global science and research.”
- The UK can now tap into Copernicus’ expansive resources for land and marine environment monitoring and emergency management services.
- The UK industry is greenlit to vie for Copernicus contracts, injecting vitality into the space sector.
- The resurrection of EU tracking and surveillance data access amplifies the UK’s space object detection and tracking prowess.
Moreover, the UK’s exit from the EU’s Euratom programme has liberated nearly £600 million, with indications that a portion is destined for Copernicus EO developments and augmenting space sector capabilities.
The Road Ahead in UK-EU Space Relations
With a re-entry into the Horizon and Copernicus enclaves, the UK’s space arena is poised for an upswing, especially in a climate where the space sector demonstrated a resilient +5.1% growth amidst economic downturns. The uncertainty lies in the extent of the UK-EU collaboration on future security operations and access, yet the reintegration into these programmes underscores a pivotal juncture for space security collaboration between the UK and Europe.