Europe needs Galileo to find its way

Europe's satellite navigation system won't get off the launch pad until we realise how badly we need it

The European Union's flag is a constellation of stars in perfect orbit, symbolising completeness and perfection. There can be no more ironic comment on Europe's near-farcical failure to advance its Galileo satellite navigation system beyond a couple of prototype placeholders in space and utter disorganisation on the ground. What raises this beyond just another multi-state mashup is the fact that we need Galileo. More importantly, we need to be able to do more things like it.

Unlike the US Navstar, Russian Glonass and Chinese Beidou systems, Galileo has been designed to be reliable enough to be used as the principal navigation system for civil aviation. That's a level of technological superiority which can translate directly into cost savings and higher standards of safety. And all the other satellite navigation systems are controlled by foreign military bodies, a level of globalisation that sits uncomfortably with even the most internationally minded of Europeans.

Strategically and technologically, Galileo makes sense. EU politics are so badly broken, however, that such considerations barely count. Instead of creating a company with one boss, one bank account and one goal, the Galileo consortium has eight companies spread across Europe. Instead of concentrating on political strategy and technological development, the project is structured to be primarily commercial — never mind the fact that no commercial enterprise would ever choose such an impossible corporate structure. And never mind the fact that none of its competitors are, or ever will be, run commercially.

We are hidebound by the need to pretend that state investment is somehow tainted, an evil to be exorcised through the purifying effects of the free market. When we are in competition with a communist state, an oil-fuelled plutocracy and a superpower spending more than a trillion dollars a year on defence, this nicety is at best a fiction, at worst an excuse for paralysis.

At some point, the EU must become able to act with the same singularity of purpose as the other great global power blocs — at least in matters of security and technological policy. This isn't a matter of fine judgements of principle or sovereignty. It's a matter of survival.