( Reuters ) - European Union countries haggled on Thursday over a long-delayed project to rival the U.S. Global Positioning System, seeking to salvage the multi-billion euro program before an end-of-the-year deadline.
Galileo, a navigation system designed to have 30 satellites, has endured years of questions about its viability and cost despite European Commission arguments that it would create thousands of jobs and ensure independence from the U.S. service.
Transport ministers were trying to agree on an industrial plan for the prestige project on Thursday, but differences remain over which countries get bits of the infrastructure.
If they fail to reach a deal, the Commission wants to put it on the agenda of a meeting of EU heads of state and government in December. The Commission has said if agreement is not reached by the end of the year, the project would essentially be dead.
EU budget ministers agreed last week to funnel unused public funds, mostly budgeted for farm subsidies, to cover the 2.4 billion-euro shortfall, overriding German opposition.
Germany has given tacit approval to a Commission proposal that would carve up contracts evenly among a few prime contractors, but some other EU states, including Spain and Italy, are still squabbling over ground stations.
"There are still a lot of different positions," German Transport Minister Wolfgang Tiefensee told reporters. "But I'm confident that, by late in the night, we'll figure it out."
Spain insists on hosting part of a control centre, one EU official said, while Italy, which will also house a centre, does not want funds diverted to a Spanish location.
"It's an issue between Italy and Spain," one EU official said of last-minute haggling before transport ministers met.
"It's a very small issue compared to the (overall) project ... but it's very complicated."
A Spanish official said Spain wanted a greater share in the project. "We want to participate more in Galileo than we are now doing," she said.
The project's crisis accelerated earlier this year after a consortium of companies charged with building it pulled out because of political squabbles and reluctance to foot the bill.
They included EADS, France's Thales and Alcatel-Lucent, Britain-based Inmarsat, Italy's Finmeccanica, Spain's AENA and Hispasat and a German group that included Deutsche Telekom.
Supporters of Galileo say it is an essential technological platform for the European aerospace and communications industries. Critics question whether it will ever be economically viable given the dominant position of the U.S. GPS system and similar projects planned by Russia and China.