Illustration of the Gateway spacecraft being built by International Space Station partners to orbit the moon and act as an exploration base © Nasa

The EU will raise its gaze on Tuesday from earthly disputes over Brexit and the budget to look at the moon and stars.

European Space Week launches in earnest with a keynote speech for Thierry Breton, the internal market commissioner, to lay out the bloc’s growing extraterrestrial ambitions.

The European plan is a product of a new and intensifying international space race. It echoes the cosmic majesty of a previous age of expeditions, such as the US Viking Mars programme and the Voyager 1 probe that is now more than 22bn km from earth. It is also a move in a growing great power game, reflected in the Chinese moon mission launched last month.

The EU’s space aspirations have been given a funding boost from about €12bn in the bloc’s current seven-year budget to €15bn-€17bn in the proposed next one, officials said. The 27 EU countries all also work through the European Space Agency, along with Norway, Switzerland and the UK.

Europe’s moonshot effort will operate via a joint project known as the Gateway space station, scheduled to be assembled during the 2020s jointly with other partners in the International Space Station. The lunar landscape is supposed to be the “province of all mankind” under the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, which in practice means those who occupy it first take possession.

The Gateway will chart an “angelic halo” orbit around the moon, acting as a base for exploration of it, the European Space Agency said. The facility will also act as a “mountain refuge”, offering “shelter and a place to stock up on supplies for astronauts en route to more distant destinations”. This could eventually include Mars.

Other big EU strategic space concerns include updates to its flagship Galileo navigation and Copernicus earth observation satellite arrays. Galileo is due a technical and security upgrade in the face of competition from the rival US Global Positioning System — and of potential physical and electronic threats from craft controlled by hostile powers. Copernicus is to be adapted to help enforce the Paris climate agreement by tracking carbon dioxide emissions.

The Europeans are also vying with the US to set regulations on space traffic management, as the number of governmental and private satellites already in orbit increases. Like other powers, they have to grapple with what to do with the growing prospect of damage to their vessels by the accumulation of “space junk” caused by decommissioned craft and debris.

Outer space has become an increasingly congested, contested and competitive realm. In that respect, at least, cosmic dreams are more a reminder of terrestrial troubles than a distraction from them.

Chart du jour: The ECB backstop

Line chart of 10-year yield spreads versus Germany (percentage points) showing shrinking spreads in the eurozone

Spreads on bond yields in several Mediterranean countries have narrowed compared with Germany’s, reflecting the steady impact of the European Central Bank’s pandemic emergency asset purchase programme. (chart via FT)

Europe news round-up

© Andrew Parsons/10 Downing Street
  • Boris Johnson is heading to Brussels “in the coming days” as the stalled Brexit talks move up from negotiator level to the UK prime minister and Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European Commission. The pair held a 45-minute phone call on Monday and concluded that the “conditions for finalising an agreement are not there”. Earlier in the day, Michel Barnier, EU Brexit negotiator, briefed officials and MEPs that fishing rights and the level playing field remained unresolved and that he could not guarantee a trade deal would be done by Wednesday. The FT breaks down why talks are stuck over langoustine and scallops and why some EU officials accuse Mr Johnson of “doing a Maduro”.

  • Romania’s centre-right prime minister Ludovic Orban has resigned after his party suffered a narrow defeat in low turnout elections over the weekend. Mr Orban, who came to office after the collapse of the centre-left government (PSD) last year, has ruled out striking a coalition with the party (Euronews, FT). Hungary’s Viktor Orban, meanwhile, has said he wants his Fidesz party to have looser ties with the centre-right European People’s party to which it belongs. The EPP has been in the process of suspending a Fidesz MEP.

  • European powers have warned Iran that its plans to expand its atomic energy programme risk scuppering efforts to revive a landmark international nuclear deal after US president Donald Trump leaves office. Joe Biden, US president-elect, says he wants to broaden the deal to tighten Iran’s nuclear constraints and address its ballistic missile activities. Iran’s foreign ministry spokesman has said Iran will not renegotiate the nuclear accord. (FT)

  • Hungary and Poland will need to signal that they will drop their veto over the EU’s budget on Tuesday or the rest of the EU will consider a “plan B” that excludes the two countries from the union’s €750bn recovery fund, according to a senior EU diplomat. (Bloomberg)

  • The World Economic Forum is trading the snowy peaks of Switzerland for the high rises of Singapore. The city-state has been chosen by WEF because of its handling of the coronavirus and will host the jamboree in May before the forum returns to its traditional home on the ski slopes of Davos in 2022. (FT)

Coming up on Tuesday

EU affairs ministers dial-in for a teleconference to discuss the agenda for Thursday’s summit — including deadlocked budget talks and Brexit. Gideon Rachman thinks that in both cases, the EU is better off with a no deal than a bad deal.; @mikepeeljourno

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