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Blog Post | The EU as a diplomatic actor in space

Space diplomacy, defined as ‘processed of dialogue that result in outcomes of cooperation or conflict on a given space issue’ [1], has shielded space from great power conflicts playing out elsewhere – both during the Cold War and in the decades that followed.

The EU has emerged as a key player in space, second only to the US, and has traditionally contributed to these developments by promoting peaceful cooperation through common norms and institutions. The EU is, however, currently facing a much more aggressive Russia in Europe, and is increasingly caught up in global rivalries between its traditional ally, the US, and emerging superpower China. Moreover, as war rages in Europe, the use of space assets for defence purposes has become key to the EU’s quest for strategic autonomy. In this setting, does the EU still promote diplomatic cooperation in space? Or is geopolitical competition on Earth spilling over to the EU’s space policies? 

EU’s turn to strategic space

The EU since the early 2000s has become increasingly concerned with the strategic defence aspects of space. This has further accelerated due to war returning to Europe after Russia’s full scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. The EU’s space policy today is explicitly linked to its quest for more strategic autonomy in an increasingly uncertain environment, and is now marked by two dimensions: (1) An increased focus on the importance of space for strengthening its defence and strategic autonomy, and (2) a parallel focus on securing space as a stable, regulated diplomatic arena. 

On the one hand, security and defence today form an integral part of EU space policies, based on the idea that strategic autonomy on Earth requires strategic autonomy in space. This is particularly evident with the EU’s recent Space Strategy for Security and Defence, and its new satellite programme, IRIS2 (Infrastructure for Resilience, Interconnectivity and Security by Satellite). IRIS connects and further develops the EU’s existing space capacities to establish an autonomous, secure surveillance and communications system. Earthly conflict has also spilled over to the EU’s cooperative practices in space. Lunar cooperation between Russia and Europe has been halted by the European Space Agency. At the same time, transatlantic cooperation has strengthened through both NATO-EU relations and the EU relying more on US capacities. 

On the other hand, however, the EU is not engaging a realist balancing game in space. Indeed – the EU is changing its relationship with Russia in space due to the war in Ukraine on Earth. But so far this has more to do with its adopted sanctions policies than a substantial change away from its traditional policy of promoting diplomatic practices and international cooperation in the domain. Cooperation with Russia even continues at the International Space Station. If anything, while the war in Ukraine has put security and defence on top of the EU agenda, it has also proved the EU’s very strong commitment to international cooperation, law and institutions. This is also very evident in space, where the EU continues to communicate the need for cooperation and binding legal regimes. 

A stable space is a safe space

That said, this approach is clearly linked to the EU’s interest in creating a stable environment. The focus on international cooperation and active engagement is explicitly related to the EU’s functional needs: Its interest in securing access to space due to commercial, societal, environmental and strategic stakes; and the need to reduce the risk of space debris interfering with satellites and other important objects in space. As the EU becomes increasingly dependent on the benefits its space systems provide, the security of those systems themselves becomes crucial to maintaining freedom of action. The EU’s main strategic approach to resilience and security in space is thus to further strengthen international cooperation and regulation. After all, from the EU’s perspective, only by regulating interaction and protecting space from overuse, can the EU secure its own access and stable use of important space assets. 

The EU’s diplomatic arm, European External Action Services (EEAS) has summed up this approach as follows: ‘International law is of critical importance for outer space security.’ Included in this strategy is the EU’s desire to prevent the weaponisation of space. This forms an interesting contrast to some of its space power counterparts and allies, such as the US. Whereas they openly employ deterrence as part of their strategy for securing space assets, the EU relies on diplomatic practices to promote international norms and agreements instead. 

The future of space governance

To conclude, even as geopolitics, interstate relations and economic opportunities change, the EU continues to contribute to space diplomacy. While they do also increasingly use space assets for defence purposes, it’s clear that the EU does not view or treat space as an area for great power conflict, and remain more of a civilian than a military actor. In other words, as in many other policy areas on Earth, diplomacy and the quest for multilateral governance is an integral part of the EU’s strategic approach to space. The future of space governance is in the making, and much will of course depend on the future choices of the big players, China and the US. But the EU will continue to push for common governance systems and may, as it has in other fields, help contribute to a peaceful development through its diplomatic practices. 

Professor Marianne Riddervold is affiliated with both  Innlandet University and the Norwegian Institute of International affairs (NUPI), and is senior fellow at the UC Berkeley Institute of European Studies.


Read the full article by Marianne Riddervold, "The European Union's Space Diplomacy: Contributing to Peaceful Co-operation?" in our Special Issue on Space Diplomacy here.

[1] Cross, M. K. D., & Pekkanen, S. M. (2023). Introduction. Space Diplomacy: The Final Frontier of Theory and Practice, The Hague Journal of Diplomacy, 18(2-3), 193-217. doi: https://doi.org/10.1163/1871191x-bja10152 

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