Satellite Bulletin March 2017: UK's relationship with the European Space Agency (ESA) after Brexit

26 March 2017

Joanne Wheeler

Notice under Article 50

On 29 March 2017, the UK Government served formal notice under Article 50 of the Treaty on European Union to terminate the UK's membership of the EU (following the June 2016 UK referendum on EU membership).

Based on Article 50, the EU Treaties shall cease to apply to the UK and the UK exit will take effect in March 2019 (subject to the unlikely possibility of the withdrawal agreement being concluded sooner and unless all Member States agree to extend the period). Negotiation of a new trade agreement with the EU could take several years beyond 2019 although the Prime Minister, Theresa May, has declared the objective of achieving such an agreement within the two-year period.

UK's relationship with ESA

The UK's relationship with ESA has been important for the UK space industry since its membership in 1975. This membership is independent of the UK's membership of the EU.

ESA is an international intergovernmental organisation which is independent of the EU. A number of the 22 member states of ESA are not members of the EU, such as Norway and Switzerland. The UK's membership of the EU does not therefore affect its membership of ESA from a constitutional and legal perspective. There are therefore not likely to be significant changes in relation to the UK's legal relationship with ESA.

UK representatives to ESA have stated that they do not see the UK membership and interest in ESA suffering because of Brexit. On the contrary, the UK's commitments to ESA have increased since the referendum decision in June 2016. ESA is likely to remain a mechanism of primary interest for the UK, thanks also to the flexibility it allows for selective commitments.

All indications are that the legal basis of the UK's membership within ESA and its rights will remain unchanged.

However, it is too soon to comment on the more political effects of Brexit and the EU negotiations on this relationship.

Galileo and Copernicus Programmes

In relation to the Galileo and Copernicus programmes, while these initiatives are headed by the European Commission, they are run in partnership with ESA.
On Brexit, however, UK companies may no longer comply with the regulations implementing these programmes and UK companies could be excluded from related procurements unless a bilateral agreement is reached, similar to those in place with Norway and Switzerland.

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