WASHINGTON-It now looks highly likely that the UK will increase its subscription to the European Space Agency. For the past week the long-promised uplift in the country’s membership fee had appeared extremely doubtful.

Such a reversal would have threatened leadership roles in a number of space missions and denied British industry some lucrative R&D contracts.

But the UK government indicated to Esa late on Tuesday that it was ready to move forward with negotiations.

A spokesperson for the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (Beis) said: “The UK has a world-leading space industry. As a founding member and one of the main contributors to the European Space Agency, we have sent a UK delegation to the ministerial conference to participate actively in discussions.”

It hasn’t been confirmed officially, but the BBC understands the UK is set to increase its €355m (£305m) annual subscription by “more than 15%”.

The negotiations here in the Spanish city of Seville should see Esa’s 22 member states approve an overall package of programmes worth €12.5bn (£10.7bn; $13.8bn). The final figure will be announced on Thursday. This money will cover a range of activities from new Earth observation satellites to joint missions to the Moon and Mars with the United States.

Esa’s triennial councils at ministerial level always start with some kind of drama, or argument, and this time it’s been the UK’s turn to be at the centre of it.

The country has been saying for some months that it intended to spend more money in Esa. “If Esa didn’t exist, someone would have to invent it,” Science Minister Chris Skidmore told this year’s UK space conference.

But it’s understood the Prime Minister’s office raised a number of questions last week about the appropriateness of an increased subscription, especially in an election period, and how the subscription would fit with a proposed national space programme.

Artwork: Europe is supplying the back end to the Americans’ Orion crewship Officials have spent recent days responding to those questions and, seemingly, reassuring No 10.

Businesses say the R&D investments that flow back into the home space sector are vital to its global competitiveness.

Britain builds a quarter of the world’s big telecommunications satellites, for example. It’s a major reason why Esa also bases its telecoms technical centre in Oxfordshire. Esa is often confused with the European Union. The organisations are actually separate legal entities and although the majority of their member states are the same, there is not a complete overlap.