Brexit | The View from Scotland

Scotland has become an important hub of small satellite activity and space research. While it’s hard to say how that work will suffer in the wake of Brexit, the uncertainty is likely to take a toll.

“Uncertainty is certainly not good for any business, be that academia or industry, as we have seen on the markets,” said Malcolm MacDonald, director of the Scottish Centre of Excellence in Satellite Applications at the University of Strathclyde’s Space Institute.

That uncertainty is likely to continue for some time because it is impossible to say how or when Britain will withdraw from the European Union. “Nobody has any idea and if they say they do they are mistaken as we don’t even know all the questions yet, never mind the answers,” MacDonald said.

Further complicating the matter is Scotland’s desire to remain in the common market. In the June 23 Brexit referendum, 62 percent of Scottish voters backed the plan to remain part of the European Union.

“The Scottish Government is taking that as a mandate to keep Scotland within the EU even if the U.K. leaves,” MacDonald said. It’s unclear how that could happen. Scotland could hold seek independence from the United Kingdom and join the European Union. Or, it could follow a model similar to that of Denmark and Greenland, an autonomous Danish territory. “Could an inverted model be applied where the U.K. is not an EU member but Scotland (a similarly autonomous country to Greenland) is an EU member? Nobody knows if that is possible yet,” MacDonald added.

Although the British vote will have no direct impact on the U.K.’s relationship with the European Space Agency and it will probably take at least two years for the United Kingdom to secede from the European Union, Scottish companies and researchers worry they will miss out on opportunities.

Patrick Harkness, a senior lecturer in space systems engineering at the University of Glasgow, coordinates a project funded by the EU that involves researchers in the U.K., Finland and Spain. “We go to each other’s countries and bring equipment back and forth,” Harkness said. “Even though we are still part of the EU as of today, I can see why other countries would choose to form partnerships with nations that are not the U.K. because it is guaranteed they are going to be able to move people back and forth. There is a risk associated with doing business with the U.K. at the moment.”

The free movement of people, goods and services, key elements of the European Union’s single market, has helped the U.K. as companies and investors outside Europe sought a foothold in a market of roughly 500 million people. Now, investors and companies outside Europe may instead seek to establish a presence in Dublin or Frankfurt, Harkness said.

There is still a chance that the United Kingdom can negotiate agreements with the European Union that would enable it to remain a part of Europe’s common market. “If the U.K. remains in the single market then, in theory, it is possible [Brexit] would have little outward affect — although of course the U.K. is then outside the room when spending priorities are being agreed and so has a much less influential voice in Europe,” MacDonald said. “It is still however paying, and perhaps paying a premium to be part of the program. In this scenario the effect is much less significant but it will be hard to get U.K. priorities addressed.”

Spire Global, a company focused on providing customers with weather and maritime data drawn from small satellites, established its European headquarters in Glasgow in 2015. The company also has offices in San Francisco and Singapore.

“The Brexit decision was a sad day for the world, and Europe in particular, moving it further apart, rather than bringing us closer together,” Peter Platzer, Spire chief executive, said. “There clearly is currently a period of great uncertainty with regards to access to highly educated people in our sector in the long term. We do like Glasgow as a location for a number of reasons and will monitor closely what is developing over the coming weeks and months.”

In addition to losing jobs and investment, the United Kingdom’s decision to leave the European Union could preclude Scottish researchers like their counterparts throughout the U.K. from competing for funding through programs such as Horizon 2020, a seven-year, 80 billion Euro European Union research program aimed at fostering innovation in science and industry, and addressing major societal challenges such as health, European security and clean energy.

Companies in the U.K. also could be barred from competing to build EU spacecraft and prevented from gaining access to the trove of remote sensing data gathered by Sentinel satellites, which are part of the EU’s Copernicus environmental monitoring program. The U.K.’s space sector has based its 15-year growth strategy on finding innovative applications for the remote sensing data, MacDonald said.

In spite of all this uncertainty, Scotland’s space sector will remain vibrant, said Colin McInnes, University of Glasgow engineering science professor. “Scotland has a thriving and rapidly growing space sector with a strong international focus which extends both within and beyond the EU,” McInnes said. “Whatever the ultimate outcome of Brexit developments, I think we are well placed for the future.”