Opinion

Seville or Puertollano: two ministers battle for Space Agency headquarters

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The plumbers of Ferraz Street, hand in hand with the Battalion of Advisors of the Moncloa Palace -the dreaded BATAPLOF-, are masters at generating artificial conflicts between Autonomous Communities.

In their attempt to garner votes among the disparate groups of na√Įve people who fall into their machinations, they have been responsible for fuelling the confrontation between at least a dozen Spanish localities vying for the trophy of becoming the headquarters of the future Spanish Space Agency (AAE).

Having ruled out its location in Madrid by legislative manu militari, President S√°nchez and his government's spokespersons have raised false expectations among the good people of many towns and cities across Spain. The deceitful verbiage of certain politicians, with high-sounding phrases such as "territorial cohesion and the fight against depopulation" has convinced many mayors that hosting the Space Agency is going to bring as many benefits as a shower of manna.

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This is what has happened in Teruel, where, in the absence of a 21st century railway, it was the first city to opt to host the glamorous new state body. With its candidacy supported by the Autonomous Parliament and the government of Aragon and encouraged by the aerospace ecosystem created in the city and its successful industrial airport, the people of Teruel "are fighting with the utmost enthusiasm and we are going to fight to the end", assures Alejandro Ibrahim, president of the Aragon Aerospace Cluster.

Similar support in their respective territories has a good part of the municipalities that are applying: Fuente de la Oliva (León), Gran Canaria, Guadalajara, Huelva, Jaén, León, Puertollano (Ciudad Real), Robledo de Chavela (Madrid), Seville, Tres Cantos (Madrid). All have anticipated the publication in the BOE of 4 October of an Order of the Ministry of Territorial Policy, by which a Consultative Commission opens a period of one month for the receipt of proposals. Elche (Alicante) and others will join shortly.

The task of the Consultative Commission is to submit its proposal to the Council of Ministers after having selected the town that will host the AAE, which the Ministerial Order states will be through a "transparent" procedure. There are references to light and stenographers, but the Commission has not disclosed its members, except that it is chaired by the Minister for Territorial Policy and government spokesperson, Isabel Rodríguez.

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The spokeswoman for Puertollano and the former spokeswoman for Seville

It so happens that Isabel Rodr√≠guez, from June 2019 until her appointment to the Executive, was mayor of Puertollano, a municipality that aspires to be the Agency's headquarters, unless its current PSOE mayor, Adolfo Mu√Īiz, rejects the bid. However, she is not the only minister who is sponsoring a location. Finance minister Mar√≠a Jes√ļs Montero has campaigned for Seville, whose municipal council is chaired by Antonio Mu√Īoz, also of the PSOE. President S√°nchez wants the Agency to be operational in the first quarter of 2023 and, coincidentally, the municipal elections in Spain are... in May!

Most of those involved fear that, in the end, the Council of Ministers will apply the K factor, which I recall means Kacen lo que quieren. They smell that a call for applications that involves a metaphysical evaluation that does not make public the ways of measuring what is asked for, and which, moreover, is not binding, "is an attempt to clothe a hand-picked decision in formality", says a manager who prefers not to be named.

In essence, the idea is to prevent the future Spanish Space Agency from having its headquarters in the Spanish capital, at the behest of the president of the Community of Madrid, Isabel Díaz Ayuso, the scourge of the left, by all possible means. But there is something that sets the Space Agency apart from other bodies that may be created in the near future.

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The EFA will be a newly created state entity, but structured on the basis of the integration of people from institutions and official departments that have already existed for decades. This means that practically all the civil servants and technicians who would be interested in being transferred to the new Agency, or who will be tempted to join it, live with their families in the Spanish capital or its surroundings.

The group is made up of some of the engineers, graduates and technicians from the National Institute for Aerospace Technology (INTA) involved in space projects in Torrejón; all the people from the Centre for Technological Development and Innovation (CDTI), who manage the participation of national industry in the European Space Agency (ESA) and in the European Union's mega space programmes, Galileo, Copernicus and SST.

Also by military personnel assigned to the Head of Satellite Systems of the Ministry of Defence and involved in secure satellite communications and navigation programmes; and the different teams of civil servants and experts in space issues from the General Secretariat for Industry, the Transport Division of the Ministry of Industry, the National Geographic Institute, the Research Agency of the Ministry of Science and the State Meteorology Agency (AEMET) linked to the Meteosat satellites.

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The Autonomous Communities should also get involved

How many are we talking about? The Ministerial Order quantifies the needs of the EPA "in principle, at approximately 60 employees, including civil servants, workers and senior management positions (...) However, the staff to be assigned to it may vary (...) and both their number and their functions may be modified". This means that first there will be about 60, and then we will see. The budget allocated to the Agency will give the measure.

As the idea is to take the headquarters away from Madrid, the Order considers that "it will be positively valued" - it does not say how much or how - that "aid will be made available to displaced personnel for the rental or purchase of housing, for the search for employment or job relocation of direct family members, for the continuation of compulsory and/or university studies of direct family members". In short, the same incentives that are available, if you will allow me to be ironic, to military and civil servants who are posted to Catalonia.

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Although it is a competition between towns, President S√°nchez has allowed himself to interfere with the autonomous governments. It is stated that "it will be assessed" that the candidacies have to be accompanied by a "report from the Council of Government of the corresponding Autonomous Community supporting their suitability". But that is not all. In the event that more than one initiative is proposed in the same territorial area, "the order of preference of each of the localities" must be indicated. This is to be read as "tilling in the weeds".

The Minister of Science, Diana Morant, said on 7 October that the President of the Space Council and Commissioner of the Aerospace PERTE, Miguel Bell√≥, and the astrophysicist √Ālvaro Gimenez, former Director of Science at ESA, were part of the team that defined the objective conditions that the chosen location must meet: "a physical space of around 3. 3,000 square metres, with an assembly hall for a maximum of 250 people (...), with a nearby hotel environment that allows accommodation for institutional and working visits".

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And a "wide network of access to public transport, both air, rail, especially high-speed trains, and road". And it must be "at a distance of less than one hour from an international airport, with connections to Brussels and Paris, and Amsterdam, Rome, Frankfurt, Prague and Toulouse will be considered". Neither Seville, Puertollano nor Teruel meet all the conditions.

To add an ingredient of confusion, Minister Morant announced in Congress on 7 October that "other evaluation criteria will be taken into account". It is therefore to be feared that the government will once again apply the three-cubilee game to which it is prone, and that the professional conman will chant "where's the ball? In other words, let them use their most precious decision-making tool: the K-factor... They do what they want to do. Well, that's just it.