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On December 1st and 2nd, ESA’s Council will meet at the Ministerial Level in Lucerne, Switzerland. The politically highest decision-making body of ESA will have to make important long-term decisions which will define the future of European space activities in the upcoming years. But what exactly is the Ministerial Council? How does it work? And which topics will be under discussion?
The Council at Ministerial Level
In order to understand the Ministerial Council, one first has to understand ESA itself. ESA is an international intergovernmental organization, meaning that it is mainly States which make the decisions. In that sense, ESA can be distinguished from non-governmental organizations (e.g. private companies, research institutes, civil society organizations, etc.) and from international organizations with so-called supranational elements in which their Member States have transferred their sovereignty in certain policy areas to the organization (e.g. certain parts of the EU).
So in ESA, States are the primary decision-makers. The organ through which Member States make their decisions is the Council. Its functions, composition and procedures are defined in Art. XI of the ESA Convention (formally: Convention for the establishment of a European Space Agency). The Council convenes in two forms: the delegate level and the ministerial level. At the delegate level, delegates from Member States meet several times a year to discuss status and implementation of various programs. This can be described as the working level.
The second form in which the Council meets is at the ministerial level. There is no rule defining how often that is to happen, but in the recent past, such meetings have taken place every two to three years. At the ministerial level, the Council makes fundamental and often highly political decisions. It determines the level of financial resources for ESA, can elect the Director General (DG) and decides on the general scientific and political direction of the organization. Every Member States has one vote at the Council, except for optional programs. Here, only Member States which participate get a vote.
Looking back: The Ministerial Council in 2014
The last Council Meeting at Ministerial Level took place two years ago on December 2nd at the European Convention Center in Luxembourg.
At the meeting, three resolutions were passed:
- Europe’s Access to Space: Having independent access to space is an important, strategic goal for every spacefaring nation and organization. In Europe, this is ensured through the Ariane and Vega launchers. Since 1996, Europe has relied on several versions of Ariane 5, but due to increasing competition in the launcher market, the decision was made in 2014 to develop a successor to Ariane 5, the Ariane 6. In addition, it was also decided to further develop the Vega launcher which is being used for smaller payloads.
- Europe’s space exploration strategy: The Ministerial Council in 2014 confirmed the exploration destinations of ESA – low Earth orbit, the Moon and Mars – and made financial commitments in that regard. Member States agreed to extend their participation in the International Space Station (ISS) until 2017 and committed new funding to the ExoMars mission.
- ESA evolution: How should ESA develop as an organization in the future? ESA does not exist in a vacuum, but has to work together with various stakeholders, such as its Member States, scientists, industry, the European Union and Non-Member States. How these relations should be shaped was part of the third resolution. All of this should happen in such a manner that ESA will continue to be a world leading institution in space science, Earth observation, space exploration and related technology development.
Looking forward: The Ministerial Council in 2016
This year, there is once again a long list of issues which the ministers of ESA’s 22 Member States and its Cooperating State Canada will have to decide on. In order for the organization to continue to explore space, distribute knowledge, foster innovation and create jobs, ESA will propose to its Member States programs in the amount of 11 billion euros. Amongst the agenda topics, there will be the following:
- Future of the ISS: At the Council Meeting in 2014, Member States agreed to be an ISS partner until 2017. Now, another extension is under discussion and according to DG Jan Woerner, ESA will propose to its Member States a political commitment until 2024 and concrete financial commitments of 800 million euros until 2021. It is uncertain, however, whether this will succeed. While all other ISS partners (US, Russia, Canada and Japan) have already extended their support until 2024, some Member States of ESA have questioned whether they will continue their contribution to the ISS in the future.
- ExoMars: ExoMars is a two-part mission which ESA carries out in cooperation with Russia. One of its goals is to look for life on Mars. In October this year, the Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) was successfully inserted into orbit around Mars. The lander Schiaparelli, however, failed during landing. Now, the second part of the mission, which is scheduled to launch in 2020, will be discussed. ESA still needs 400 million euros for the mission and DG Woerner has said that if Member States are not willing to commit that amount, the mission will have to be cancelled.
- ESA evolution: The institutional evolution of ESA will also be on the agenda again. One point of discussion will be how ESA should adapt to the “New Space Economy”. Woerner wants to meet the challenge of increasing privatization and diversification of space activities with a concept called “Space 4.0” which envisions a greater involvement of private companies and the general public in space activities. In addition, Woerner wants to improve cooperation between European institutions through a concept called “United Space in Europe”. One example of this is the drafting of a mutual European Space Strategy together with the European Union (represented by the European Commission). The EU has presented a strategy paper in October which was accompanied by a joint EU-ESA statement on shared vision and goals for the future of Europe in space. ESA is also drafting a strategy paper which is closely coordinated with the EU strategy and should be passed at the Ministerial Council together with the Member States.
Author: Maximilian Betmann
- Convention for the establishment of a European Space Agency (ESA Convention)
- Resolutions passed at the Council Meeting at Ministerial Level in 2014
- Press briefing on the Council Meeting in 2016 by ESA DG Jan Woerner (Video)
- Media backgrounder on the Council Meeting in 2016
This article is available in: German