Paris: European nations agreed Wednesday to boost their spending on space by up to 17% in coming years as competition with the United States and China intensifies but failed to come up with a package being sought in talks overshadowed by the war in Ukraine.
The European Space Agency said ministers from its 22 member states had agreed to provide 16.9 billion euros for projects from Mars exploration to climate research in 2023-25, up from 14.5 billion euros in the previous triennial budget period.
“This gives Europe the political, scientific, and financial means to reinforce its space sovereignty between the United States and China,” French Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire said after hosting a ritual bartering round held every three years.
The Paris-based ESA asked its 22 nations to come up with 18.5 billion euros ($19.06 billion) for Europe’s involvement in rocket launches, satellites, and planetary research. ESA Director General Josef Aschbacher hailed the resulting extra 2.4 billion euros of pledges as a significant achievement given troubled economies, and said programs would be adjusted but not dropped to meet the gap with the 4 billion ESA wanted.
“We will have to see what may be done and what may not be done at the same scale as was planned before,” he said.
A representative from a major contributing nation had earlier indicated that the pot may be smaller than expected after side talks dragged late into Tuesday evening.
“We are getting there; the total is coming up nicely. It may not get all the way there but (we) will be close,” he said.
Germany, which since 2019 has been ESA’s biggest financial backer ahead of France, dug its heels in over aspects of the proposed increase as talks ran long, another delegate said. A key last-minute stumbling block was the detailed funding of Europe’s Ariane and Vega rocket launch network.
ESA, whose Ariane rocket pioneered commercial launches but now faces intense competition from Elon Musk’s SpaceX, is seeking to maintain a key role in space while balancing the political constraints of its large and small nations. The funding exercise in a hangar-like temporary conference center near the Eiffel Tower involved back-to-back rounds in which nations chipped into areas like exploration or Earth observation in return for industrial work.
Ministers and officials took their horse-trading into a dinner reception at the Paris Opera on Tuesday and then into the night as several nations organized “splinter meetings”.
Small countries were seen as making painful efforts to come up with budgets guaranteeing new skilled jobs under ESA’s quid-pro-quo “fair return” system as the deadline neared for a deal.
“Every figure is committing nations; it is not just an Excel spreadsheet,” a person familiar with the talks said. In a joint statement on Tuesday, Europe’s big three space launch nations – France, Germany, and Italy – opened the door to a new generation of micro launchers and a future review of funding rules in the face of U.S. and Chinese space ambitions.
ESA Director General Josef Ashbacher said the politically significant move had unlocked negotiations in other areas.