Interview with Niklas Nienaß, member of the European Parliament

By Maria Castells Valero


In this edition of our Global SGAC Newsletter, we are honoured to feature an exclusive interview with Niklas Nienaß, a prominent figure in the field of space policy and politics. As a distinguished member of the European Parliament representing the German Green Party, Niklas brings a wealth of knowledge and experience to the table.

With a strong background in environmental and climate policy, Niklas has developed a keen interest in the space sector and its profound implications for sustainable development. His involvement in the Committee on Industry, Research and Energy and the Committee on Regional Development allows him to actively contribute to shaping Europe’s approach to space exploration, satellite technology, and international cooperation. 

In this enlightening interview, we delve into the pressing topics at the forefront of space policy. Niklas shares his perspectives on the role of space exploration in addressing European challenges, promoting global collaboration, and driving sustainable progress. We also explore the European Union’s stance on space governance, its pursuit of strategic autonomy, and the potential of space initiatives to fuel innovation and economic growth.


  1.  As a Member of the European Parliament specialising in space policy, how do you see the role of the EU in the global space industry?

The EU by itself has gained relevance in the space sector thanks to the space programme, which has brought forward, for example, remarkable Earth observation technology. I would say, though, that the international community does not understand the differences between the EU space programmes, the ESA programmes and the national space programmes.

So, in general, the Americans for example, are only talking about the “Europeans”,  without differentiating really between the three levels (EU, ESA, Member States).  

In itself, I would say that while the services the European space program is providing are quite valuable, so far, although it might change, has not entirely contributed too much to the development of initiatives such as the European Space Market.  

Nonetheless, the development that comes when pushing forward programmes such as  Galileo and Copernicus is extraordinary. And the development, as well as providing the services, is quite useful. Useful, but not extensive.  

I would say that if you look at each agency’s programme (EUSPA, ESA, MS) separately,  you will find that none of them is extraordinary. They are good, but not extraordinary.  The problem in itself is not whether or not they are extraordinary, but rather the scope they take. With NASA you have extensive platforms and research facilities (like the  James Webb Telescope), big missions, and a lot of initiatives going on in all the domains that concern space. In the big chunk that space is, NASA is doing great.  

In Europe however, as a whole, we have a multitude of programmes that only represent a pinch of what the Americans are doing. Each programme in the EU (at any level) is focused on very specific issues, and therefore, in themselves, is not so extraordinary.  

  1. How do you see the development of the EU’s space sector evolving in the coming years,  and what role do you see the EU playing in shaping the future of space exploration?  

The EU space sector is working to improve and there is an increased interest in space technology and a need for it to be discovered and exploited at the political level. In the political sector, there is also a need to be involved in the space sector, and countries like  Germany and France are increasingly showing their interest in building a strong space sector. In that sense, the EU is doing a step forward.  

So, there is a lot of development and raising interest in this sector and is more than likely that it will continue to raise interest as years pass by. The main focus of the EU space programme is indeed strategic autonomy, which has increased significantly since the war in Ukraine. Achieving this strategic autonomy through space focuses more on communications and observation, maybe even on defence, rather than outer space exploration. 

In this sense, I would say that the Artemis Programme1 challenges the Europeans to not just follow NASA’s initiatives, but make some proposals in return, and show that we also have something interesting going on, relevant to space exploration.  

So overall, there is an increased interest in space from the political side, but the focus is only put on the strategic autonomy part. This is a good place to start, yet it hinders many other ambitious initiatives to grow.  

  1. How does the EU balance the needs of its member states with the overarching goals of the EU space program?  

The problem with the general EU policy is that it always has to demonstrate the benefits for the Member States. Harmonizing legislation in the EU is super complex in the EU, and the support for certain legislations comes, logically, from those countries that have benefited from the proposals. The space programme is no exception to this.  

The Galileo programme has a military component that raises the interest of MS, and there is overall a high degree of consensus in regulating it and the services it provides. With  Copernicus, it is more or less the same, with the free and open data, so that it can be used for the greater benefit of all.  

In general, these programmes must show that they benefit the MS. However, the space sector is so far lagging, as it is constantly focusing on the downstream benefits for the MS  rather than upgrading and going beyond. It is important to also focus on the upstream benefits, yet Europe is not ready for it, it would be very disruptive.  

  1. What do you see as the biggest challenges facing the EU’s space program currently, and how do you think they can be overcome?  

In politics, there are two angles:  

– Create the possibility to invest, which is what we do for the space programme.  

– Try to set good boundaries and make good laws to enable more development,  which is what is missing at the moment.  

Focusing solely on the space programme (possibility to invest) does not let us consider the whole picture, because investments by themselves are not the solution. We also have a legal problem, since there is too much uncertainty on how to develop further strategies.  We need to solve this issue as soon as possible.  

Going back to the space programme, I argue that at the moment we have a stable framework until 2027 and its financing is set in stone, basically.  

What is missing from this programme, however, is the finance for the next generation of  Copernicus. In addition to that, we are having trouble with starting the Galileo satellites.  In my opinion, solutions to these problems should not be conducted relying on foreign actors such as SpaceX, but rather trying to find a way to make these challenges a benefit for our space market.  

For the Copernicus programme and its missing finances, the EU should look at the United  Kingdom, a country that is interested in joining the programme, as they were in the past.  I am hopeful the UK will be involved in the programme, as well as Switzerland. If we do not seek help in Europe, we are forced to look further away, and this is not entirely desirable.  

Yet the biggest challenge that the EU space programme faces is its own future, meaning that it must look at the bigger picture and set the future framework for 2028 and beyond.  The drafting will most likely begin in 2025, and we must consider that the money should be put not just only to continue improving the current services that we have, but also have some flexibility to develop new services and to develop the space market by itself.  

1 The Artemis Programme is the Moon exploration program, a descendant of the Apollo Missions, led by the United States National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). 

  1. In your opinion, what steps can the EU take to strengthen its position as a leading space power, while maintaining strategic autonomy in the face of geopolitical challenges and competition from other global players?  

Well, as I said before through the two angles. I believe we need to foster more investment,  which we can do through more clear legislation. This is what we can do until 2025, which is when negotiations will start for the 2028 space programme.  

Until then, we can try, although it is really unrealistic, to use the time to talk about the space budget on the European level. We should also propose legislation and space law that includes basically everything, from liabilities to registration, to research, ownership and sustainability. The sooner we propose a space law within European legislation, the sooner we can establish global standards. Being the first ones creating their own legislative framework, makes us the ones setting the standards internationally (normative power of the EU).  

Therefore, by setting the standards, we will have the chance to develop more quickly and foster private investment. By giving out contracts to private entities we will be able to show their solutions are credible and foster more investment in the field.  

  1. What are the internal strengths and weaknesses of the EU’s current space policy, and how do you believe these factors will impact the EU’s ability to achieve its strategic autonomy goals in the space sector?  

I believe the strengths of the current space policy can also be its weaknesses. There are too many space agencies and actors within the Union, and that can be advantageous but also pose considerable challenges in the sense of coordination.  

There are too many agencies that stem from the EU, including the Commission and the EUSPA. But then we also have ESA, which is separate from the EU, and finally all these national actors.  

This can be seen as a strength, as there is competition within these institutions and between themselves, which brings possibilities to the arena and fosters innovation and research. There are a lot of smart people in all of these institutions, and this talent is key for strengthening the space programme in the EU.  

Yet the negative part of it is that this divergence and adversity of institutions and administration make it hard to have a single strategic approach in a single individual programme. That is what I said in the beginning: if you look at each programme individually, they focus on different areas, and by themselves, are not that interesting. If you look at the whole EU programme, then that is when it gets relevant, which is why from the outside they call it the “European” programme, without differentiating whose initiative is it (as in ESA, MS, EU…).  

Another important weakness that we face is that although we have a considerable investment in the sector, it is still not allocated efficiently, nor is it enough to properly launch strong initiatives that can be sustained in the long term. That links with the fact that we have a slow administration, and it takes forever to approve projects and put them into force. If we could merge all of the programmes and initiatives, I believe the EU space programme would be as recognizable and known as NASA, for example.  

  1. What are the external opportunities and challenges that the EU should consider in order to maintain its strategic autonomy and competitiveness?  

I believe the main challenge, or threat, that the EU faces is the multitude of interests of various players, with very diverging views on how they should pursue space strategies.  In this sense, the Americans have a very good approach to “ownership” in space, and so do the Chinese, whereas the Europeans probably are a bit behind on this.  

I believe this is also an opportunity for us, as it gives us the chance to become a relevant international player by setting international standards. This is also applicable to negotiations with various players. Now with Russia, obviously, is very complicated, but in general, Europe is in a good position to reach out to other actors, like Japan, as we are used to proposing laws, solutions and compromises, and setting the standards that work for a very relevant number of players with a lot of money, technology, industry.  

But also, we are specialized in considering small players. Indeed, the multilevel governance of the EU can help the EU solve an international arena, as we have the experience of taking every voice into account. We have a variety of actors within the EU  and we solve the issues for all of them (generally), which puts us internationally in a good position to create comprehensive compromises for different players. This is a strength and an opportunity that we should use in the future for the advantage of humanity.  

Another opportunity for the EU is to include the UK, a country that is willing to join, in the space programme.  

  1. How does the EU work with other countries and international organizations to ensure that space is used for peaceful purposes and to prevent the weaponization of space?  

The EU, in itself, does not have military purposes for space, even if Galileo could be used to fulfil them. However, the MS have them. I honestly do not know what the EU is doing in this regard.  

But what must be considered is that the EU’s foreign policy is highly driven by the MS,  and not by Europe by itself, which is kind of problematic, to be honest, but also inevitable.  As of now, there is nothing concrete from the EU on that matter, besides the EU Space  Strategy for Security and Defense. 

We extend our sincere gratitude to Niklas Nienaß for sharing his insights and expertise with us.

Maria Castells Valero, International Relations Degree
The academic year 2022-2023