ESA Faces the Limits of Expansion, Growing Power of EU

polish_flag_eu_flagBy Douglas Messier
Parabolic Arc Managing Editor

At the European Space Agency (ESA) ministerial meeting on Nov. 20-21 in Naples, there was a new flag flying outside. The red-and-white flag of Poland, which had joined space agency the day before, was raised among those of ESA’s other 19 member states.

Poland became the third — and wealthiest — former Eastern Bloc nation to join ESA behind the Czech Republic and Romania.  The nation’s ascendance brought the number of full ESA member states to 20 from the original 10 countries that created the space agency in 1975. Canada is an associate member.

Ten other European nations, nine of which have cooperative agreements with ESA, attended the quadrennial ministerial meeting as observers with hopes of eventually joining the space agency as full members. Behind them, there is another group of 10 countries — most of which are still emerging from the fall of communism two decades ago — that could one day join ESA.

The possible expansion of the space agency to 30 or even 40 members representing  700 million Europeans raises is an exciting prospect. ESA has successfully pooled the collective talents of Europeans to create a world-class space agency. It also has brought broad practical benefits to the European people and helped to raise up the technology levels of poorer nations on the continent.

However, future expansion also raises some daunting questions. Many of the prospective members are quite poor and under developed. They would offer little additional funding for ESA’s budget (currently $5.38 billion) or much in the way of technical expertise. Another key issue is whether the space agency would be able to continue function effectively under its current one-nation, one-vote rules as more nations join.

The other major issue looming over the space agency involves the European Union, which under a framework agreement now contributes more funding to ESA’s budget than any individual member state. The EU is using its growing clout to propose that the independent space agency be brought under its control.

In the Beginning

During the 1960’s, the Europeans created two different organizations to carry out space exploration. The European Space Research Organization (ESRO) pursued scientific research and built spacecraft.  The European Launch Development Organization (ELDO) focused on developing rockets. ESRO was the fairly successful while ELDO failed to produce a viable launch vehicle.

In May 1975, the 10 nations involved in those efforts decided to merge the two organizations into the European Space Agency. The 10 nations were joined by Ireland at the end of 1975 and associate member Canada in 1979. ESA formally came into being in 1980 after operating on a de facto basis for several years.

The table below shows how the space agency has expanded over the decades. The table also includes each nation’s gross domestic product (GDP), per capita GDP, and population.

NationSignatureRatificationPer Capita
GDP ($)
GDP ($)Population
Sweden (EU)30 May 19756 April 1976$56,927 $538,100,000,000 9,482,855
Switzerland30 May 197519 November 1976$80,391$635,700,000,000 7,954,662
Germany (EU)30 May 197526 July 1977$43,689 $3,571,000,000,00081,843,743
Denmark (EU)30 May 197515 September 1977$59,684$332,700,000,0005,580,516
Italy (EU)30 May 197520 February 1978$36,116$2,195,000,000,00060,820,764
United Kingdom (EU)30 May 197528 March 1978$38,818$2,432,000,000,00062,989,550
Belgium (EU)30 May 19753 October 1978$46,469$511,500,000,00011,041,266
Netherlands (EU)30 May 19756 February 1979$50,087 $836,300,000,00016,730,348
Spain (EU)30 May 19757 February 1979$32,244 $1,491,000,000,00046,196,276
France (EU)30 May 197530 October 1980$42,377 $2,773,000,000,00065,397,912
Ireland (EU)31 December 197510 December 1980$48,423 $217,300,000,0004,582,769
Canada (Associate Member)9 December 19781 January 1979$50,345$1,736,000,000,00034,482,779
Per Capita
GDP ($)
GDP ($)
Austria (EU)197930 December 1986$49,707$418,500,000,0008,443,018
Norway198130 December 1986$98,102$485,800,000,000 4,985,870
Finland (EU)19871 January 1995$49,391$266,100,000,0005,401,267
Portugal (EU)199614 November 2000$22,330
Greece (EU)January 20019 March 2005$26,427 $298,700,000,00011,290,935
Luxembourg (EU)September 200030 June 2005$115,038 $59,470,000,000524,853
Czech Republic (EU)19968 July 2008$20,407 $215,200,000,00010,505,445
Romania (EU)December 199223 December 2011$8,405 $179,800,000,00021,355,849
Poland (EU)28 January 199419 November 2012$13,463 $514,500,000,00038,538,447
Subtotal, Full ESA Members
Total, All Nations (Including Canada)

As noted, 18 of ESA’s 20 European members are also members of the EU. Switzerland and Norway are the only nations that are not members of the union, although they have close economic and political ties with it.

One clear trend is that ESA’s expansion in the 21st century has drawn in an increasingly poorer set of nations, particularly as it has embraced Eastern Europe that became independent as the Soviet Union collapsed more than 20 years ago.  Beginning with Portugal in 2000 and continuing through Romania and Poland during the past year, five of the six nations have per capita GDP of under $30,000.

The exception is Luxembourg, an extremely wealthy country with a tiny population that boasts the smallest economy of the 20 ESA members. Previous to Luxembourg, the last of Europe’s club of wealthy countries to join the space agency was Finland in 1995.

Contributions to ESA’s Budget

As would be expected, national contributions to ESA’s budget roughly correspond to the relative sizes of each nation’s economy and population. The table below shows ESA’s 2012 budget by contributor. These figures include contributions by the EU and non-member cooperative states as well as other income.

Income Source
(millions €)
National GDP ($)
1.European Union867.721.58% —
5.Other Income246.56.13% —
6.United Kingdom240.05.97%$2,432,000,000,000
7.Spain184.04.58% $1,491,000,000,000
8.Belgium169.84.22% $511,500,000,000
10.Sweden65.31.62%  $538,100,000,000
16.Canada (Associate Member)18.70.47%$1,736,000,000,000
17.Portugal15.80.39% $237,500,000,000
20.Czech Republic11.50.28%$215,200,000,000
23.Non-Member European Cooperating States (Estonia, Hungary, Poland, Slovenia)5.80.14%
Subtotal, ESA Full and Associate Members:2,900.172.14%
Subtotal, EU:867.721.58%
Subtotal, ECS and Other Income:252.36.28%
Total ESA (With EU):4,020.1100%

The top two contributors, Germany and France, provided a combined 36.55 percent of ESA’s budget. When you expand out to the top five national contributors by adding Italy, the United Kingdom and Spain, that figure increases to 55.82 percent.

The EU was the top contributor to the budget, providing 867.7 million euros or 21.58 percent of the budget. The EU, France and Germany collectively contributed 58.13 percent of the budget. The figure rises to 77.4 percent when you include the EU with the top five national contributors.

At the bottom of the table, eight full member states and associate member Canada contributed less than 1 percent of the budget apiece.  Three other nations provided less than 2 percent each to the budget.

There is a direct correlation between the size of a nation’s economy — in terms of GDP and per capita GDP — and its contributions to ESA. The United Kingdom traditionally being an outlier by contributing proportionally less than the other large European economies. The UK recently boosted its contribution, vaunting to third place among member nations and fourth place overall for the 2013 budget.

Future Enlargement

The map below shows ESA’s 20 member states in dark blue along with nations with whom the space agency has signed cooperative agreements. The colors represent different levels of cooperation along the way to becoming full members.

For nations that joined ESA after 2004, the space agency adopted a three phase process that typically takes about six years. The phases include:

  1. Cooperation Agreement: a pact that lays out the framework for cooperation;
  2. European Cooperating State (ECS) Agreement:  a pact that allows the cooperating nation to participate in ESA procurement; and,
  3. Plan for European Cooperating States (PECS) Charter: a five year plan under which the country performs a series of activities, develops its space industry, and works more closely with ESA.

The PECS Charter is usually agreed to within a year of finalizing the ECS Agreement.  At the end of five-year PECS agreement, ESA decides whether the nation is ready for full membership. If it is, then negotiations begin. If not, the two parties can sign a second five-year PECS Charter.

The table below shows the 11 nations with whom ESA has at least a Cooperation Agreement and their progress toward becoming full members of the space agency.

Per Capita
GDP ($)
GDP ($)Population
1.Hungary (EU)April 1991April 7, 20031st: Nov. 5, 2003
2nd: Sept. 26, 2008
2.Estonia (EU)June 26, 2007Nov. 10, 2009Sept. 22, 2010$16,556$22,180,000,000 1,339,662
3.Slovenia (EU)May 28, 2008Jan. 22, 2010Nov. 30, 2010$24,142$49,540,000,0002,055,496
(EU Candidate)
July 15, 2004 — —$10,498 $773,100,000,00074,724,269
5.UkraineJan. 25, 2008 — —$3,615$165,200,000,00045,706,100
6.Latvia (EU)July 23, 2009 — —$12,726$28,250,000,0002,041,763
7.Cyprus (EU)Aug. 27, 2009 — —$30,670$24,690,000,000862,011
8.Slovak Republic (EU)April 28, 2010 — —$17,646 $95,990,000,0005,404,322
9.Lithuania (EU)Oct. 7, 2010 — —$13,339$42,730,000,0003,007,758
10.IsraelJan. 30, 2011 — —$31,282$242,900,000,0007,765,700
11.Malta (EU)Feb. 20, 2012 — —$21,209 $8,887,000,000416,110
Subtotal, PECS Charter Nations$211,720,000,00013,352,889
Subtotal, Western and Eastern Europe
(Excludes Ukraine, Turkey and Israel)
Total, All Nations $1,593,467,000,000153,280,922

Three nations — Hungary, Estonia and Slovenia — have engaged in all three phases required to join ESA.  Hungary could potentially join the space agency the year or in 2014, while Estonia and Slovenia could possibly join by 2016 if ESA is happy with their progress.

All three of these nations are relatively poor, with Estonia having the highest per capita GDP at $24,142. Their combined GDPs total $211.7 billion, which is below Ireland even with a total population that is three times larger. The combined GDP of all 11 nations with cooperative agreements with ESA is just under $1.6 trillion, compared with a combined GDP of $18.2 trillion for all 20 ESA member states.

Of the other eight nations, Israel and Cyprus are the only ones with per capita GDPs above $30,000. Israel has the second largest economy in the group at $242.9 billion, while the Cypriot economy is the second smallest at nearly $24.7 billion.

Both Israel and Ukraine have highly developed space sectors that would both add to ESA’s capabilities and compete with existing members for contracts.  Ukraine produces three launch vehicles — Zenit, Dnepr and Cyclone 4 — and builds the first stage for Orbital Sciences Corporation’s new Antares booster and the upper stage for Europe’s Vega rocket. The nation also is building a launch complex in Brazil for the Cyclone 4 launches.

Israel also has a space sector is internationally competitive, with its own launch vehicle and lines of optical and radar reconnaissance satellites. The nation has arguably the most advanced space technology base among the 11 nations with which ESA has cooperation agreements.

ESA officials say full membership for both Israel and Ukraine is possible, but neither could join any time soon. There are also political obstacles, as Space News recently observed:

Both nations have made repeated inquiries about joining the 20-nation ESA, but neither is currently on the path to membership pending detailed discussions with ESA’s current member states, ESA Director-General Jean-Jacques Dordain said Jan. 24.

Briefing reporters here, Dordain said neither he nor ESA has any objection to non-European Union members joining ESA. Canada is already an associate ESA member, and Norway and Switzerland have been in the agency for many years.

But how far ESA can expand outside the 27-nation European Union (EU) remains a question now that the agency and the EU’s executive commission have closer relations and the commission uses ESA as a technical manager for many of its programs.

The European Commission in November already raised questions about whether ESA-European Commission relations might suffer because of Norway and Switzerland, especially if ESA is asked to perform military space work for the European Commission….

Ukraine has not yet applied formally to join ESA, Dordain said, but has left little doubt that it would do so if ESA governments signaled that this would be welcome.

ESA membership by all 11 nations listed above would expand the space agency’s authority to nearly 637.5 million European citizens. The great bulk of that population expansion would take place in Turkey and Ukraine, two nations with relatively large economies but the lowest per capita GDPs in the group.

Turkey, Ukraine and Israel lie on the periphery of ESA and Europe, which is largely focused on Western and Eastern Europe. If you exclude these three nations as members, the other eight nations have a combined GDP of $412.3 billion and a total population of 25.1 million. So, expansion to this core doesn’t add that much to the ESA’s bottom line.

It should be noted that eight of the 11 nations are members of the EU.  Bulgaria is the only EU member that does not have a cooperation agreement with the space agency. Croatia, which is set to join the EU on July 1, 2013, also lacks an agreement.

Other Potential European Members

Any additional expansion of ESA is likely to track with the enlargement of the EU. The map below shows the current membership of the EU along with other nations that are joining, negotiating to join, or are potential members of the EU. Note that there are two nations in grey — Norway at the top and Switzerland in the middle — that are not part of the EU but are members of ESA.

Croatia is the only acceding nation on the map.  Four other nations in light blue — Iceland, Macedonia, Montenegro and Turkey — are EU candidates while the other nations are shown as potential candidates.

The table below shows 10 nations that might eventually join ESA that do not have cooperative agreements with the space agency. Their statuses relating to the EU are shown. The table includes Moldova, which hopes to eventually become an EU member but is now shown on the above map.

NationPer Capita
GDP ($)
GDP ($)Population
1.Iceland (EU Candidate)$44,072$14,060,000,000319,575
2.Croatia (EU Member on 7/1/13)$14,488 $63,850,000,0004,398,150
3.Montenegro (EU Candidate)$7,197$4,550,000,000618,197
4.Bulgaria (EU Member)$7,158$53,510,000,0007,327,224
5.Serbia (EU Candidate)$6,203$45,040,000,0007,261,000
6.Macedonia (EU Candidate)$4,925$10,170,000,0002,059,794
7.Bosnia and Herzegovina
(Potential EU Candidate; No Application)
8.Albania (Potential EU Candidate; Applied to EU)$4,030$12,960,000,0003,215,988
9.Kosovo (Potential EU Candidate; No Application)$3,593$6,446,000,0001,794,303
10.Moldova (Not an EU Candidate)$2,128$7,559,000,0003,553,000
Totals: $236,235,000,00034,229,469

Iceland is the only nation on the list that would fit comfortably among ESA’s upper tier countries in terms of wealth. It also has a very tiny population and a small economy, limiting its ability to contribute much to the space agency’s budget. The other eight nations on the list are quite poor with developing economies.

The combined GDP of all nine countries is $228.7 billion. That figure is slightly less than Portugal, one of ESA’s poorer member states. Portugal contributed $20.4 million to ESA’s $5.38 billion budget in 2012. This was only .39 percent of the total.

The table below shows potential ESA expansion to 40 European nations plus associate member Canada in terms of current combined GDP and population.

Category20 Full Member
11 Cooperating
10 Potential
Member Nations
Combined GDP ($) $18,209,170,000,000 $1,593,467,000,000 $236,235,000,000 $20,038,872,000,000
Combined Population
 484,208,185 153,280,922 34,229,469 671,788,576
20 Full ESA Member Nations Plus Canada
Combined GDP ($)$19,945,170,000,000 $1,593,467,000,000 $236,235,000,000 $21,774,872,000,000
Combined Population

Enter the EU

During the past decade, the European Union has become increasingly involved in space research and development. In May 2004, the 27-nation EU signed a framework agreement with the independent ESA that allowed for cooperation between the two organizations. Three years later, the Lisbon Treaty that overhauled the EU’s operating rules gave the union authority over space, defense and security policies on the continent.

The EU has poured billions of euros into funding the European Global Navigation Satellites Systems (GNSS), space research programs, and other initiatives both on its own and in cooperation with the space agency. ESA, for example, has been responsible for building the GNSS satellites and ground systems.

ESA’s 2012 budget shows how important EU funding has become to its operations. The union contributed €867.7 million ($1.144 billion) to the space agency’s budget. That is more than any national government and constituted 21.58 percent of the €4.020 billion ($5.3 billion) total. Germany was the next largest contributor with €750.5 million.

The EU is not entirely happy with its cooperation with ESA. In a recent communication to the European Council and Parliament, the European Commission identified a number of areas where differences between the two organizations are causing problems with cooperation and recommended changes that threaten ESA’s independence.

The commission identified the following issues with cooperation:

Mismatch of financial rules: ESA’s largest programs require geographic return: each nation must get back in contracts the same percentage of funding that it put in. When ESA implements EU programs, the space agency must seek best value regardless of where the contractors are located. These divergent approaches have caused problems with programs jointly funded by both agencies.

Membership asymmetry:  Only 18 of ESA’s 20 member states are members of the EU, with Switzerland and Norway being outside the union. Associate member Canada is also an EU outsider.  ESA’s one-nation, one-vote policy gives non-EU members “a disproportionate leverage over matters that may affect the EU.”  The commission recommends qualified-majority voting over unanimous consent.

Asymmetry in security and defence matters:  The presence of non-EU member states in ESA has complicated the union’s ability to coordinate continental-wide security and defense matters with the space agency.

Absence of mechanisms for policy coordination:“ESA’s space activities lack a structural connection and coordination mechanism within the wider policy-making of the European Union….Specific mechanisms for coordination and cooperation need to be agreed in time-consuming negotiations at programme level. There is no formal mechanism at policy level to ensure that initiatives taken within ESA are consistent with EU policies.”

Missing political accountability for ESA: While the European Union is accountable directly to voters through an elected Parliament, ESA operates on its own and is accountable to national governments.

In the communication, the European Commission suggested three possible options for improving cooperation that could be presented to ESA by the end of next year.

“These options would include: improved cooperation under the ‘status quo’, bringing ESA as an intergovernmental organisation under the authority of the European Union (following, to a certain extent, the model of the European Defence Agency), or transforming ESA into an EU agency (following the model of existing regulatory agencies).

“The Commission, working closely with ESA, will carry out a detailed cost benefit and risk analysis of the different options, with a view to maximising synergies between the different actors including the GSA.

“These options would preserve the current essential features of ESA (i.e. optional programmes subscribed by Member States) while giving ESA key EU features – such as qualified majority decision-making or accountability vis-à-vis the European Parliament.”

Officials admit that making these changes will take some time. “The Commission considers that a clear target date should be set between 2020 and 2025 for this long term objective,” the communication reads.

What exactly would happen with non-EU members Norway, Switzerland and Canada is not entirely clear. The three nations contributed nearly 5 percent of ESA’s budget in 2012.

Income Source
(millions €)

In a declaration adopted at their November meeting, ESA’s ministers agreed to begin a period of reflection on how to evolve the space agency and to improve cooperation with the EU. Specifically, the declaration requires the following actions over the next two years:

  • the Director General to work with the European Commission in order to provide a common analysis on the situation of the European space sector and a common vision on its evolution aiming at building up coherence, convergence and complementarity among the different actors;
  • the Director General to elaborate and assess, in consultation with the ESA Council, the different scenarios for ESA to respond to the objectives defined in this Resolution;
  • the Co-Chairs of the ESA Council at ministerial level to provide the Director General with the political guidelines for this reflection, in close consultation with the Ministers of Member States and coordination with the EU;
  • invite the Director General to report to the co-Chairs of the ESA Council at ministerial level and to the Council on a regular basis, on the progress of the above reflection process and to bring forward proposals for decisions on the further evolution of ESA to be taken by the Member States at the occasion of the next ESA Council meeting at ministerial level scheduled to take place in 2014;
  • invite the Director General to make proposals to Council, after consultation with the European Cooperating States, aimed at improving the cooperation with European States wishing to contribute to ESA’s policies and activities, and facilitating their accession to ESA as full Member States.

The declaration says that it is up to the member states to decide the future direction of ESA, and that the space agency must accommodate both EU and non-EU nations.

In February, EU governments backed down, adopting a watered-down version of the November proposal that omitted “references to security concerns with ESA’s non-EU members and glossing over differences in contract-award procedures…. The resolution, adopted without debate, is far from the European Commission’s initial proposal in November. That statement said the fact that the 20-nation ESA includes Canada, Norway and Switzerland as members raises concerns as ESA and the commission work together on dual-use and security- or military-related space projects.”

The idea of bringing ESA under EU control has threatened a rift between the space agency’s two largest national contributors, Germany and France. French officials seem more comfortable with this outcome, viewing ESA’s eventual future as lying with the much larger EU.

“The EU’s increasing power in the space field is a major asset. We desire and support it, while seeking to clarify the different players’ roles in governance,” said Geneviève Fioraso, French Minister of Higher Education and Research, in recent remarks. “Discussions have begun – on the part of both the ESA, at its council in Naples, and the EU, at the Competitiveness Council of 12 December. They will have to continue in 2013.”

Germany — which has surpassed France as the largest national contributor to ESA’s budget — is leaning the other way. Germany has begun to assert its growing power both within the space agency and the larger European continent; the approach to the crisis in the eurozone has been largely dictated by Berlin. In a recent blog post, Johann-Dietrich Wörner — chairman of the German space agency DLR — promoted an approach that stopped short of an EU takeover.

Handling this supposedly hot potato is inflaming tempers for no reason. Obviously, ESA should not relinquish its successful mechanisms, which go beyond industrially and politically important ‘geographical-return’ rules and programme councils. The European Commission’s requirement for adoption of all the EU rules will come to nothing and could be harmful. Nevertheless, making the alliance between ESA and the EU fit for the future is important. The simplest solution, but perhaps therefore not the one being approached in the circles of the professional participants in the discussion, is a separate EU programme within ESA. Here, the commission’s projects could be handled in accordance with EU rules and be carried out using the existing capabilities of ESA as a space agency. This programme area could come under the administrative responsibility of a separate directorate, under the auspices of ESA.

The question of responsibility for European space policy – or, to be more specific – for the formulation of recommendations for coordinating national and supranational space activities remains. Once again, no new institutional acrobatics are required. The Space Council, as the joint instrument of ESA and the EU, already deals with this.

So instead of having on-going heated debates about a cold potato, and in addition to pragmatic approaches for reinforcing institutional European space flight, it is important to push for solutions to specific, truly important and non-trivial matters – decisions concerning the future of launch systems, the Space Station and other activities permit no delay if Europe’s competitiveness is to be maintained and reinforced.


ESA is currently at a crossroads in terms of its expansion. It already incorporates almost all of the wealthy, developed nations within Europe. Further expansion will largely bring in relatively poor member states with weak space and high technology sectors. Most of the new members will add little to ESA’s budget, and they will require additional parceling of the space agency’s budget to ensure that each country gets back in contracts roughly what it puts in financially.

The two nations currently cooperating with ESA that have developed space sectors, Ukraine and Israel, are not currently on membership paths. They would bring technology and expertise to ESA, but they also would be competitive with companies located within existing member nations.

An increasing percentage of ESA’s overall budget is being supplied by the EU, which is demanding an increasing a say in how things are run.  Unless member nations decide to significantly boost their own contributions, the path to growing ESA’s budget will run through Brussels.

Given the frequent complaints about the frustrating level of EU bureaucracy, it’s unclear whether ESA would perform better under the union’s control than as an independent agency. ESA might benefit from the EU’s emphasis on best value in contracting. However, the space agency’s geographic return policy is the glue that helps keep the organization together. Without it, would Germany simply put more money into its own domestic space agency?

Ultimately, the issue of control could be less important than what policies ESA and the EU pursue in space. In the United States, NASA has been shifting over to a commercial approach to servicing the International Space Station and has been making increasing use of flexible Space Act Agreements to spur competition and innovation in the private sector. The U.S. space sector is innovating like crazy in the areas of launch vehicles, reusable suborbital spacecraft, and commercial space stations in ways not seen in Europe or anywhere else in the world.

The outcome of these American efforts is far from clear. They could succeed wildly, or we could be looking at yet another false dawn that ultimately delivers disappointment results in inverse proportion to the extravagant promises that have been made.

My guess is the results will be closer to the former than the latter. The commercial space effort will succeed, if not achieving all its promise, but enough to change the rules of the game. In which case, ESA will need to seriously rethink how it operates on a fundamental level if it wants European industry to maintain its competitiveness.

Information Sources: Eurostat  and The World Bank