The authoritative source for independent research on UK-EU relations

03 Oct 2023


UK-EU Relations

Marissa Martin sets out the impact for the UK space industry and UK-EU space security collaboration of the UK’s reassociation to the Copernicus programme.

When the United Kingdom left the EU in 2020, its participation in various partnerships and programmes came to a standstill, two of the most consequential being Horizon Europe and Copernicus.

Horizon is the EU’s research and innovation funding scheme (2021-2027) offering more than €95 billion in funding to partner states for academia and industry, while Copernicus is the European Earth Observation (EO) programme, which supplies remote sensing technologies via satellites to observe and monitor the Earth.

Recently, under a new deal, the UK announced the restarting of their participation in the Horizon and Copernicus programmes. While there’s been much said about the benefits for research and academia being allowed access to Horizon funding applications again, less has been said about the positive impact access to Copernicus – which provides climate monitoring as well as security capabilities – will have on the UK space industry. As well as not being able to bid for Copernicus contracts, being an observer rather than a full participant in Copernicus had limited the UK’s Earth Observation-related security capabilities.

Post-Brexit space

Before officially leaving the EU, the UK Space Agency published a report in 2019 strategising the future of the UK’s EO capabilities. The report stated the UK’s overall objective in Earth Observation was to maximise ‘its potential for the economy, science and society’ through European Space Agency (ESA) and non-ESA missions.

The report acknowledged that the UK’s key priorities aimed to leverage the best financial return from ESA investments and to further establish international bilateral or multilateral ties.

UK rhetoric on EU space programme participation echoed the UK’s commitment to promoting cooperation in outer space. It also demonstrated the UK’s expectation to remain in collaboration with Europe’s space programmes, despite other, broader political issues.

The Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA) which establishes UK-EU relations post-Brexit, was updated on 30 April 2021 to identify, and address the UK’s participation in EU space programmes. Despite outlining a system to handle this participation agreement, the EU paused the ‘adoption of the protocols…in an attempt to pressure the UK to fully implement the NI Protocol’.

The three years that followed the UK’s formal departure saw the UK’s membership to both the Horizon and Copernicus programmes reduced to that of an observer rather than a fully-fledged, active member.

As a non-member, UK access to Copernicus was limited to open-source data, which is free and publicly accessible. This included the Sentinel family of satellites which often only carried an imagery resolution of 10 metres. The lower resolution meant these satellites were mainly only useful for climate monitoring rather than sensitive security missions.

Alongside this, the UK lost data collection capabilities for border surveillance, maritime surveillance, and other security implementations, such as identifying areas of activity. The UK also lost access to the EU’s surveillance and tracking data, which helps to ensure space safety and sustainability.

In response to the Horizon loss, the UK government committed to matching funding for research and development projects that no longer had access to Horizon funds due to the impasse. It also earmarked support for Earth Observation activities in the UK by pledging £200 million in 2022, ‘in light of the EU’s continued delays to UK association to the Copernicus programme’.

Although it remains unclear whether these pledged funds have already been allocated or whether they are now on hold, the pledge demonstrated the UK’s hopeful outlook for re-joining these EU programmes and solidified EO as a critical priority for the UK.

Renewing relationships

On 7th September 2023, three years after the UK left the EU, the UK announced a renegotiated deal on UK participation in Horizon and the Copernicus programmes. This not only signifies a step forward in UK-EU relations post-Brexit, but also a step forward for the defence and security industries.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said, ‘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’.

What this means for space collaboration is positive. The UK will once again have access to the Copernicus programmes’ much larger resources and projects, with a shared financial burden alongside Copernicus-associated states. This includes Copernicus’ applications for land monitoring and marine environment as well as Copernicus’ emergency management services, which grants the UK access as an authorised user.

Additionally, UK industry will now be allowed to bid for Copernicus contracts, which had been paused. This provides a renewed boost to the UK space industry and increased return.

Alongside this, the deal provides renewed access to EU tracking and surveillance data, which boosts the UK’s ability to detect and track space objects. Thus, contributing to the UK’s space capabilities that, in the 2021 Integrated Review, the UK highlighted as a key investment area.

A notable aspect of this renegotiation is the UK’s withdrawal from the EU’s Euratom programme. Instead, the nearly £600 million pounds has been verbally earmarked by the UK’s Minister for Science to partially go toward Copernicus EO developments and space sector capabilities.

While the specific reallocation of these savings is not yet known, the money earmarked for UK domestic industry and EU partnership programmes indicates strong favourability toward a more active UK-EU post-Brexit relationship in the space sector.

UK space: allied partners

As the space industry continues to thrive, the renegotiated participation of the UK in the Horizon and Copernicus programmes spurs further growth for a blossoming space sector, which has seen +5.1% growth in 2020/21 (valued at £17.5 billion) against economic decline in the UK during that same period.

Although it remains to be determined at what level the UK and the EU will collaborate for further security operations and access, the announcement that the UK will re-join the Horizon and Copernicus programmes offers a turning point in collaboration for space security in the UK and in Europe.

By Marissa Martin, PhD candidate, King’s College London.


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