FUCINO, Italy -- With lofty dreams of European unity increasingly grounded by economic woe and the weight of narrow national interests, an array of computer screens here in central Italy blinks with faint signs that -- far away in space, at least -- Europe's often quarreling nations can still sometimes find common cause.
Ringed by snow-covered mountains on a plateau east of Rome, the Fucino Space Center stands guard over the European Union's flagship joint project: a satellite navigation system that is years behind schedule, many times over its original budget and unlikely to start operating for at least another year.
Europe's future commitment to the project, known as Galileo and designed to create a new, improved and European-controlled version of America's Global Positioning System, is to be decided in Brussels on Thursday and Friday, when European leaders will try for a second time, after talks failed in November, to hash out a long-term budget for the 27-nation bloc.
With recession and austerity clouding much of the Continent, they will argue over where the ax should fall on a European Union budget for 2014 to 2020, which would total nearly $1.35 trillion as drafted. An over-budget satellite navigation system that is years from full completion, largely a duplicate of an American system already widely used in Europe and unlikely ever to generate much revenue would seem to be in the budget cutters' cross hairs.
But Galileo's backers are confident, so much so that they are asking for $8 billion beyond the more than $4 billion already spent. For Galileo promises perhaps the one thing that still seems able to overcome European leaders' devotion to austerity: economic and technological independence from the United States.
"It is like a car going on a highway -- it is very difficult to stop," said Lucio Magliozzi, chief operating officer of Telespazio. The Italian-French company manages the Fucino control center, which is tracking the handful of Galileo navigation satellites launched by Europe so far.
Galileo, also known as the European Global Navigation Satellite System, has already burned through more than three times the original budget target and has only 4 of the 30 planned satellites in orbit. Even so, the troubled program highlights how, through sheer force of will and a judicious sharing of economic spoils, the European Union can at times push ahead with objectives it defines as "strategic."
Space "has a strategic importance for the independence of Europe, for employment and for competitiveness," Antonio Tajani, vice president of the European Commission, the union's policy-making arm, said in a recent speech. Mr. Tajani, who is also the commission's senior official responsible for space projects, added, "This is why we need a European space policy that is even more ambitious."
The budget talks are expected to be dominated by the competing demands of countries, like France, that want to maintain heavy spending on farm subsidies and those in poorer regions that want to avoid cuts to so-called cohesion funds designed to narrow economic gaps on the Continent.
This leaves items like research vulnerable to deep cuts. Research is heavily favored by Britain and some other countries as a lever for Europe to be competitive in the future but is less immediately tied to the economic fortunes of individual states.
One project that could get hit is a satellite observation system known as Copernicus, or Global Monitoring for Environment and Security. Europe's efforts to monitor earth from space suffered a big blow last year when its biggest satellite, an eight-ton device called Envisat, suddenly stopped working. The Copernicus program has its own satellites and is now mostly operational but has struggled to get a clear funding commitment in the next long-term union budget.
Europe "is like someone who buys a car but has no money for petrol," Diego Canga Fano, a senior European Commission official in the department responsible for industry, said at a space conference in Brussels last week, referring to uncertainty over money for the Copernicus project. "The car is useless. We are a bit in this situation."
Galileo has fared better, gathering a powerful group of backers in Brussels and among industrial and political interests in key member states. They include France, Germany and even Britain, which is usually a leading voice for deep cuts and was once a strong critic of the navigation program.
Galileo -- first proposed in 1994, more than 20 years after America started its own system, and initially promoted as a big potential moneymaker -- "can't give a direct return on investment, but politically it is very important for Europe to have its own autonomous system," said Mr. Magliozzi of Telespazio.
By building and controlling its own satellite navigation apparatus Europe aims to escape its dependence on America's GPS to guide its cars, missiles, aircraft and ships. Unlike the American system, which was devised by the military and is still ultimately controlled by the Pentagon, Galileo is under civilian control -- although it, too, would have potentially wide military uses. It is also designed to be far more precise than the American version.
After an abortive effort to get private companies to put up much of the development costs, Galileo has been financed almost entirely by the European Union since 2007. It is the first and so far only major infrastructure project managed by the European Commission.
Galileo has had such a troubled history that many doubted it would ever get off the ground. Critics mocked it as "the Common Agricultural Policy in the sky," a reference to Europe's program of subsidies for farmers, which eats up nearly 40 percent of the union's total budget.
A 2011 report to the European Parliament listed a catalog of troubles, noting that Galileo had been particularly blighted in its early years by a familiar problem: political pressure from individual countries to skew the project in favor of their own companies and other immediate interests.
It also ran aground, the report said, on friction between the "pro-Atlanticist" stand of strong American allies like Britain and the "pro-European" outlook of nations that often have strained relations with Washington, like France. "Political disagreements among member states marked the Galileo program since its very beginning," the report said.
A cable from the United States Embassy in Berlin released by WikiLeaks reported private remarks made in 2009 by the chief executive of a German satellite maker, OHB-System. It quoted the OHB chief, Berry Smutny, describing Galileo as doomed to fail without major changes and "a waste of E.U. taxpayers' money championed by French interests." Mr. Smutny, who disputed the comments attributed to him, was fired by the company.
"This is the most stupid remark I have ever heard, and the decision taken by shareholders of OHB was the right one," François Auque, chief executive of Astrium, a rival satellite company owned by the European defense and aeronautics conglomerate EADS, said in a recent lunch with reporters. "It doesn't cover any reality at all."
Astrium won an initial Galileo contract for four satellites. But contracts worth $1 billion for 22 more satellites have all gone to OHB, now one of the primary corporate beneficiaries of Galileo. British companies have also done well, a boon that has helped erode Britain's initial hostility to the project.
The United States also initially opposed Galileo, with officials in the administration of President George W. Bush worrying that the European system would interfere with GPS channels used by the military and could be used by America's foes in a war. Washington also asked why, when many European nations were increasingly unable to fulfill their military obligations as members of NATO because of defense cuts, they wanted to splash billions on a project that replicated an existing system paid for by the United States.
After long and sometimes testy negotiations, Europe and Washington called a truce in the dispute, and now each pledges to cooperate to make the two systems work together.
Officials at the European Commission now stress that Galileo is not meant as a rival to the American system but as a European-controlled extension of a shared global navigation network. They acknowledge that Galileo, most of whose services will be free like those of GPS, will not earn much. Airlines, shipping companies and some other commercial users will probably be asked to pay for certain data.
But, said Mr. Tajani, the commission vice president, it will "open a whole new world" for business in the development of applications for Galileo's highly precise positioning data. Officials say Galileo could be used to guide blind people, monitor the movement of cows to check when they are ovulating and aid in a host of other practical needs.
But other Galileo supporters still emphasize its role in freeing Europe from dependence on America. "It lets Europe stay independent," said Elmar Brok, chairman of the foreign affairs committee of the European Parliament.
"It is a question of independence," Mr. Brok said. "The blind are not independent, and Europe without its own satellites will be blind."
James Kanter contributed reporting from Brussels.world
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.