European space policy and the EU’s ‘Outermost Regions’

Space technology is seeing increased use in warfare. This has generated great concern for the European Union’s capacity to maintain a stable space policy. Diogo Vieira Ferreira argues that the effective development of European space policy requires the strategic participation of the so-called ‘Outermost Regions’

What is an Outermost Region?

In 1997, the Treaty of Amsterdam provided for the creation of EU ‘Outermost Region’ (OR) status. The 2007 Treaty of Lisbon then laid out a legal framework for policies regarding regions under the OR statute. Article 349 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union recognises the unique characteristics and constraints of these regions, which include their geographical location and limited resources. It then develops measures specifically tailored to their needs.

The regions of Guadeloupe, French Guiana, Martinique, Réunion, Saint-Barthélemy, Saint-Martin, the Azores, Madeira and the Canary Islands hold this status, and are eligible to receive special treatment from the EU. These places are remote, insular, and small, with challenging topography and climate, and economic dependence on a few, mostly agricultural, products.

Outermost Regions are remote, insular, and small, with challenging topography and climate, and economic dependence on a few, mostly agricultural, products

Outermost Regions have gained a reputation in subnational (regional) EU development. A shortage of usable land means they have weaker economies, strongly dependent on transport- and communications-based infrastructure. ORs also lack skilled manpower, and may have only limited natural resources.

Since 1992, the European Commission has developed a 'programme of options specifically relating to remoteness and insularity': POSEI. These aim to help ORs develop in several areas, and maintain their position in a strong, economically competitive EU.

In this way, ORs receive support from the EU Cohesion Policy through the FEDER and European Social Fund programmes. They also benefit from special EU treatment based on their OR status.

Outermost Regions' geostrategic relevance

Academic research into the ORs has grown over the years, albeit not exponentially. Some researchers look at the economic benefits of sustainable sectors such as ecotourism. Others focus on ORs' rich, unique biodiversity.

However, there has thus far been limited research on the important issue of ORs' strategic position in EU foreign policy. Given their geographical remoteness, ORs play a vital role in EU geopolitical and geostrategic missions.

These outposts of the EU help expand the EU's reach to continents beyond Europe. Their location can thus help the EU develop close relations with overseas territories, 'third world' countries, and developing and developed countries that share historical and cultural links.

Space and new strategies of tactical warfare

In recent times, new strategies of tactical warfare have transcended geopolitical borders and seemingly expanded to space. Recently, for instance, GPS was deployed through satellite links to track down armoury equipment and pinpoint military positions in the Russo-Ukraine war. And this challenges space security all over the world.

This is a major concern for the EU, which of course wishes to maintain firm control over space peacekeeping activities. Anders Fogh Rasmussen recently declared that European leaders should push for a more open, competitive market in space now that instruments in Earth’s orbit are increasingly used for espionage and war.

New strategies of tactical warfare have transcended geopolitical borders and seemingly expanded to space

As such, the EU has worked consistently with the European Space Agency (ESA), entrenching strategic and political measures to develop a sustainable and safe space policy.

ORs are important players for the EU and the ESA because they hold strategic positions beyond European borders. They are now home to several space observation and exploration facilities.

The ESA's main spaceport is in French Guiana. The Azores already has a satellite communication facility. Madeira has implemented space surveillance and tracking telescopes. Meanwhile, the Canary Islands' Canary Space Centre in Maspalomas gathers vital satellite data.

These facilities are important enough for EU space strategy that they receive EU funds alongside increased support from the ESA.

An increasingly contested geopolitical domain

Space is an increasingly contested geopolitical domain. Any misuse of space-based services designed for crisis management could harm EU capacity to react to security threats. And, notably, member states dominate relations between the EU and the ESA under EU space policy, regulating space-related activities.

The ESA now shows a great deal of interest in the strategic positioning of ORs in the area of sustainable space surveillance and exploration

Procedures in space strategy lean towards the participation and cooperation of states, with little mention of subnational entities. This has, however, changed over the years. For example, the Lajes Airfield in the Azores was an important strategic operations base for the US Army during WWII and the Cold War. But the US government began to lose interest in the airfield in the 2010s.

Now, it is the ESA that shows more interest in the strategic positioning of ORs in sustainable space surveillance and exploration. Indeed, the ESA and the Portuguese Space Agency are currently seeking to establish a spaceport on the Azores island of Santa Maria.

The future of EU space policy

We cannot ignore how ORs' strategic positioning is essential for the development of EU space policy. Expansion beyond the European continent’s borders through the ORs is a geopolitical victory. With the transition of Earth-based strategies to outer space – from geopolitics to astropolitics – now is the time for ORs to (re)gain their strategic relevance. The EU should give greater recognition to ORs as pivotal actors in the continuing development of its space policy.

This article presents the views of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the ECPR or the Editors of The Loop.


photograph of Diogo Vieira Ferreira
Diogo Vieira Ferreira
PhD Candidate, University of Beira Interior, Portugal, in conjuction with the University of Aveiro, Portugal

Diogo has collaborated on projects related to the European parliamentary elections and the effects of media campaigns on the politicisation of the European Union.

He also writes ocasionally for Diario dos Açores, a regional newspaper from the Azores Islands.

His main areas of research are European election studies, democracy in the European Union and comparative party politics.

He tweets @FerreiraVDiogo

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