The European Union (EU) transport ministers' decision to put a halt to the development of the planned independent European satellite navigation system, Galileo, may come as a blow to the European Commission (EC) and private industry, but it is the right decision.

With so many unanswered questions over the financing of the €3 billion ($2.8 billion) Galileo system, the management model and with critical liability and control issues unresolved, the ministers had little option but to delay giving the green light for full-scale development of the system.

The industry had expected them to grant conditional approval for Galileo's development at their meeting on 22 December, with clear deadlines for resolving the problems. But by delaying a decision altogether the EU ministers have made it abundantly clear that they want the answers first - and soon. They have given the European Commission (EC) three months to get them.

Development of Galileo is cheap in European project terms. According to the EC it costs the equivalent of 100km of high-speed rail track across open country on the continent, but it is still a huge project to commit to and European member states are right to tread carefully. But the value should not detract from the importance of the project. With satellite navigation perhaps the single most important strategic asset for any country, whether for military operations, air transport services, shipping and other forms of transportation and information management, Europe cannot afford to be entirely dependent on the USA for its satnav needs forever.

Galileo promises to provide a Europe-controlled and managed global satellite navigation system comprising up to 30 satellites built by European private sector companies and financed jointly by industry and governments. The only danger now, though, is that the three-month decision extension, designed to allow the EC to get its house in order and answer EU states' burning questions, slips further. If that happens, Europe will be in danger of diminishing industry interest and, more importantly, the private sector's financial commitment. Without industry funding, Europe's satellite navigation ambitions will not get airborne.

The private sector has already demonstrated its commitment to Galileo. In the last year, the continent's space and navigation companies, including Astrium, Alcatel, Alenia Spazio and Thales, have devoted considerable time and effort to determine how Galileo should look, what services it should provide, how much it will cost and how the investment will be returned.

Prior to the transport ministers' decision, industry took to the campaign trail and did much to educate states on just what Galileo will mean to Europe and how important it is for the continent. As a result, EU states are now largely in favour of Galileo as the continent seeks to get a chunk of a growing market long been dominated by the USA.

But while there is still the industry will to sort out the remaining issues, it cannot do so alone. Now it's the turn of the EC and European Space Agency (ESA) to play their parts and show equal commitment to finding answers to the difficult questions. The EC must resolve the burning issue of its involvement in Galileo, who should control it and who will be responsible for it as well as how the public-private partnership is going to work.

The Commission also needs to be realistic about the public sector financial commitment to Galileo - industry participants in the definition studies believe the public contribution is underestimated. Without these issues resolved, Europe risks missing out on a €40 billion industry by 2005, in addition to the 20,000 job opportunities on the continent that are expected to result from Galileo. And in the meantime, while Europe dithers on its satellite navigation plans, GPS is getting stronger day by day. It is time for Europe to take the golden opportunity available to it to get involved in the booming satellite navigation market. It is on the right track, but the EC must finish its homework, get the EU states to commit to Galileo and just get on with it.

Source: Flight International