A surprise decision over the weekend by European Union leaders to fund an alternative to the United States Global Positioning System satellite network could shape up as a critical event for Europe’s future as a technological power.

Unlike the U.S. GPS, which uses signals from orbiting satellites to pinpoint geographical positions within 36 meters, the Galileo system of 30 satellites orbiting at a height of 15,000 miles — expected to be operational by 2008 — promises accuracy within 1 meter.