A fresh row over the UK’s involvement with the Galileo satellite programme, to which the country’s taxpayers have already paid £1bn, threatens to poison the Brexit talks after the EU shut Britain out of the project.
A majority of member states have turned against the UK and voted in favour of pushing forward on the next round of contracts for the £8bn project, despite requests for a delay to allow negotiations over British involvement to progress. UK firms are being blocked from bidding for contracts.
Galileo is an £8bn satellite navigation system intended to rival the US-controlled global positioning system. Once fully operational in 2020 it will provide accurate position, navigation and timing information to be used by governments, citizens, industry and the military.
British companies have been central to its design and build. A technical paper handed to EU negotiators last month warned that restricting UK involvement would lead to delays of up to three years and an additional cost to the EU of about €1bn. .
The result prompted a furious response from the UK science minister, Sam Gyimah, who repeated the claim that Britain was willing to “walk away” from the project, to develop a rival satellite. The UK was beaten by a “simple majority” within the 28 member states.
Gyimah said: “The government has been clear that our preference is to contribute fully to Galileo as part of a deep security partnership with the EU, and that negotiations should be allowed to run their course. By forcing through this vote, while excluding UK companies from the contracts on unfounded security grounds, the European Commission has put this at risk.
“There is an option on the table that would benefit both the UK and EU. If that is not accepted by the EU, we are a proud and confident nation and will be looking at all alternatives.”
The development came 24 hours after European commission officials secured support from the 27 member states for their decision to treat the UK like any other non-EU country, despite concerns among some at the high-handed approach of its officials on the issue.
France, the UK’s closest security partner in the EU, which is particularly keen for tight cooperation in the future, backed Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief negotiator.
A commission slide presentation to the member states was made public on Wednesday that dismissed British demands as seeking to go beyond what is possible for third countries.
The document insisted that the EU’s guiding philosophy was that a country withdrawing from the union could not enjoy the same benefits as a member state.
Stefaan de Rynck, an aide to Barnier, tweeted on their publication: “As @MichelBarnier said in a speech on 14 May, ‘we need to put the cooperation on Galileo between the EU and the UK on a new basis’”.
The development is likely to infect the wider negotiations. The UK has warned of irreparable damage to security cooperation should the EU insist on blocking its requests for a status on the project similar to that enjoyed today.
Yet this week’s commission paper claims the UK is seeking a “change of nature” of the programme, turning it into an international endeavour rather than a purely EU one.
There would be a loss of “strategic autonomy” for the bloc if it gave way to the UK’s calls for equal access to the design and development of the secure military-grade signal as the EU, the commission successfully argued.
It was further agreed that the UK government could instead only have “observer status” on decisions relating to the project. Its space industry will also not be permitted the same access to contracts for security elements of the satellite system as member states.
EU diplomats were quick to point out that the commission is not blocking the UK’s military from access to Galileo’s secure signal, just proprietary knowledge of its codes, design and development. In restricted circumstances, UK companies could also manufacture the receivers for the military-grade signal.
But the commission managed to get agreement that the UK would not be offered a special status, a position that Downing Street claims would not be strong enough for it to put its faith in the satellite when its military was engaged in a conflict zone.
One EU diplomat told the Guardian that the British press had tried “to blame the French, the Germans, the commission, but this [is] just the united position”.
EU officials have previously suggested that offering the UK access to Galileo’s secure components and development would give Downing Street the power to switch the satellite off.
A UK government source said: “The suggestion the UK could ‘switch off the system’ is absurd fearmongering which ignores the strength of UK support for Europe’s security, our shared aims in Nato, and our common interests.
“It implies they wish to treat us as a hostile state, which is frankly laughable. Of course, if they really are worried about it we could easily provide safeguards on that point in the terms of our access.”
Last month the chancellor, Philip Hammond, warned that the UK would “have to go it alone”, if the EU maintained their position.
The UK has also threatened to seek the return of its past financial contributions. Such a move would imperil the wider withdrawal agreement by opening up the sensitive matter of the country’s £39bn divorce bill.