Interview

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Interview Michel Praet, Member of Cabinet of the President of the European Council

COUNCIL

The European Council is an institution of the European Union. It comprises the heads of state or government of the EU member states, along with the President of the European Commission and the President of the European Council. While the European Council has no formal legislative power, it is charged under the Treaty of Lisbon with defining “the general political directions and priorities” of the Union. It is thus the Union’s strategic (and crisis solving) body, acting as the collective presidency of the EU. The European Council was established as an informal body in 1961; it became an official EU institution in 2009 when the Treaty of Lisbon entered into force

Can you describe in a simple way your daily work at your office at the European Council? Could you explain how the Cabinet’s team is assisting to the Council decisions? How you coordinate your work?

In fact we are a very small team advising the President (17 individuals only). Briefly, it can be stated that the Cabinet has two pillars, a “diplomacy and foreign policy” pillar and a socio-economic pillar.
I belong to the latter one and deal, on a daily basis, with issues such as research and development, innovation, information society, education, culture and (I would say “of course”) space policy.

How your previous work in ESA could help to tackle space issues? It is not only my past experience at ESA (more than ten years at the ESA Brussels Office, heading the Cabinet of the DG in Brussels) that is helping me tackle space issues. In fact, I have been involved in space activities for more than 25 years, and I have had the chance to look at it from different perspectives:
  • the Belgian public perspective as Advisor of Deputy Prime Minister Willy De Clercq from 1982 till 1984 and of Deputy Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt from 1985 till 1987, and as Head of the Space Department in the Belgian administration from 1987 till 1992;
  • the private perspective as Director Strategy for Alcatel Space in Belgium and Deputy Director “Marketing and Sales” for Alcatel Space in Europe (corresponding more or less to what is today the Thales Alenia Space group) from 1993 till 1999;
  • and, finally (at least till end 2009) the international and intergovernmental perspective at ESA. What may at first glance appear as a non-linear career path has actually given me the ability to consider the full spectrum of space challenges, exactly what is required from the point of view of an institution such as the European Council.

How the Council, the Ministers of the Council of the European Union and ESA work together? And how the Space Council has been set up?

To make a (very) long story short, I would say that there are, in Europe, three main actors dealing with “space”:

  • the Member States “individually”, mainly through ESA, but also e.g. Eumetsat and other organizations, and of course, through the EU;
  • the EU Institutions (mainly through the right of initiative exercised by the Commission, but also the Council and Parliament, in various degrees of influence);
  • and last but surely not least , what I call the industry, be it operators (Arianespace, Eutelsat,…), manufacturers (EADS, OHB,…) or the service industry “at large”.

The two former actors should increase, in a complementary way, their support and dedication to space because space is one of the most important tools to improve EU citizens’ life. The latter, industry, is what makes space possible, real, tangible.

As I used to say: “We need more Europe for better space, and we need more space for a better Europe”.

GMES

The European Parliament, the European Council, which includes ministers from European Union member states, and the commission itself have all endorsed GMES and Galileo in recent months…. but the decision to take the GMES project off the commission’s budget just as it begins operations drew immediate criticism from EARSC. Could you please comment on it? And what about the political commitments?

I tend to agree with EARSC and… with the Commission itself, which considers that the decision to fund GMES outside the Multi-annual Financial Framework (MFF) would “create high uncertainty for GMES”. Allow me to quote President Barroso: “We must guarantee the success of the EU flagship projects EGNOS/GALILEO and GMES. We must develop a strong, space-based capacity to deal with climate change and we also need more security in and from space”. This is, indeed, a very clear statement.

For GMES, the commission cites a figure of 834 million euros per year that would be proposed, à la carte, to member states that would make individual decisions on whether to subscribe, and for how much…. how do you believe this will work?

I think that this is the formula that has been, is and will be applied in an intergovernmental Agency as ESA, through what ESA calls “optional programmes”, and has been successful. To open such “optional programmes” in the EU setting, through the outsourcing of the GMES funding to Member States directly is, in my view, mixing up the role of the Commission (that has to take care of the 27 Member States being considered as “one player”) with the role of ESA (acting, as I mentioned before, through “à la carte” programmes in which Member States participate in function of their own political and industrial interests).

There is no precedent on this, and would in fact blur responsibilities over the future of the programme. This has been a Commission initiative from the beginning. It will now be the role of Member States and MEP’s to decide exactly what to counter-propose for the funding of GMES towards 2020.

As to me the only viable solution is to reintegrate GMES in the MFF, somehow or other (through Horizon 2020, or through dedicated policy budget lines: in environment, climate, regional policy or, why not, “space policy” as foreseen in the Treaty). The letter circulated on this issue by MEP Vittorio Prodi is a very good and a very helpful one.
The Commission and the Member States should also keep in mind that GMES is not a “you take it all” project, as ITER is. GMES is a “building block” project, meaning that, by definition, cost overruns are impossible because you can always limit the number of “blocks” making up the project.

From GMES paper (1) “Further delays and uncertainty on GMES financing greatly undermine the industrial effort and make projects linked to GMES very unattractive,” “The funding uncertainty will certainly reduce, or even cancel, future private commitments.” Which could be now the role of the EO value added industry?

The EO value added industry will, I imagine, determine its strategy based on numerous parameters.

One of them, and which I consider an essential one, is, to put it bluntly, the long term political support and financial commitment (these two elements are completely linked) of ESA AND of the Commission: of ESA in order to build up the R&D of the system; of the Commission to use the system. Without this second element, everything is jeopardized: the R&D project itself, the economic and social benefits of the system, but also the EU’s political credibility.

Is now financing the most challenging task for GMES? What about governance?

Governance and financing go hand in hand. You can not deal with the one ignoring the other.

To be blunt again, what really matters is to have enough budget through ESA AND Commission levels, to have financial regulations and rules allowing to spend this budget in the most efficient manner, and to have the necessary flexibility to support long term investment, be it for an infrastructure policy or for a user/service policy. No more, no less!

DIALOGUE WITH INDUSTRY

What will cooperative efforts between the European Council and Industry bring? How EARSC can work with the Council to provide the views of the downstream service industry? How can the dialogue be improved?

Let us not confuse the Council of the European Union with the European Council. Their roles are different. But industry should speak with, or “lobby” (I have nothing against this beautiful word) Ministers, Prime Ministers and even Heads of States, to explain which “potential”, which “added value” space tools can offer: space tools in general and EO space tools in particular. And when I refer to “added value” I have in mind all the fields and domains that are for Europe of strategic importance and for which this “space added value” is absolutely needed: agriculture, environment, energy, climate change, communications, transport, education, medicine, humanitarian aid, crisis response, sustainable development, maritime surveillance, international relations ; to name but a few.

The sector is following the Lisbon agenda in terms of helping growth and jobs in Europe… but what do you think about benchmarking along some other industrial sectors?

Again, space is simply a tool. Not “the” only tool but for sure a significant tool to improve the definition of European policies and to better implement them. A tool that should be used in the most efficient manner. That is why the space sector does not only concern what is usually called “the space industry”. Today, it concerns an extremely wide array of the economy and our growth. Regarding innovation and employment, I can assure you that I am “fighting” (this is the right word) every day to put it high on the agenda of the European Institutions.

The sovereign debt, the fiscal consolidation, the Eurozone (that rightly Herman Van Rompuy prefers to call “Euroland”, reflecting better the integrated approach that is needed) are , of course, crucial issues. But President Van Rompuy is also constantly insisting on the “global economical approach”: in order to overcome the crisis you need Sustainable growth. And you need concrete measures to make this growth possible, in particular the ones proposed by the Heads of State and Government during the European Council dedicated to innovation held on February 4th.

FUTURE & SOCIETY

At the end of the interview, we would like to ask you for your overall recommendations on the future development of the geo-information service sector, and would like to ask to give some hopefully positive messages to the members of EARSC

As I mentioned before, geo-information in practice concerns and influences all European policy fields, because geo-information is in essence cross-border, and the very basis on which political decision can be taken. Without information, a great deal of which comes from space, elected officials cannot make informed decisions. Moreover, considering European history and integration, I believe it is important not to forget the regional dimension of and in Europe.

DG Regio is one of the most important DG’s in the Commission and is insufficiently aware of the possibilities that a well designed geo-information service can procure. Be it a “city” service (and the lover of Venice that I am is thinking at the lagoon issue), a “regional” service or an inter-regional service (look e.g. at the Baltic Sea or at the Danube strategy). Industry should improve its communication with DG Regio and with the “regional component” in general, simply to explain what can be achieved, what the potential of space can be to these Commission services. At least I would warmly recommend doing so.

(1) EARSC position paper on Multinnual Finantial Framewrok
Captions:
-Mr. Praet contribution in speech
-Mr. Praet, Member Cabinet President European Council and Mr. Dordain, ESA Director Gemeral
-Mr. Preat and Mr. Herman Van Rompuy, President of European Council during European day 2011

Thank you in advance for the elements of contribution to the Interview and for sharing your thoughts and comments with the EOmag readers.

EOmag!27_Interview with Michel Praet Member of cabinet of the president of the European Council.pdf