BRUSSELS, Belgium – EU member states gave the green light on Tuesday for the European Commission to pursue air traffic agreements with the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Turkey and countries in southeast Asia to try to support its airlines.
Europe’s aviation industry, which contributes 110 billion euros to EU gross domestic product, has been hit by the rapid expansion of Gulf airlines, such as Emirates, Etihad Airways and Qatar Airways, and shifting traffic flows to Asia.
The Commission, the European Union’s executive, asked national governments in December to give it a mandate to start talks on air transport agreements with a number of countries, including China, Turkey, UAE, Kuwait and Qatar.
Such agreements, now often done on a bilateral basis between the governments of two countries, would set out where and how often foreign airlines could fly into the EU, and vice versa.
The Commission hopes the aviation deals will give European airlines greater access to some of the world’s fastest growing aviation markets, notably the Gulf countries and Turkey, and bring billions of euros in economic benefits.
“Once agreed, these agreements will offer new business opportunities to the whole aviation sector, new routes and better fares to passengers, whilst guaranteeing a level playing field to our companies,” said EU Transport Commissioner Violeta Bulc.
Some European carriers, notably Lufthansa and Air France KLM, as well as major US airlines, have accused Gulf carriers of receiving unfair state subsidies, allegations they have rejected.
The Commission will be able to seek fair competition and financial transparency provisions in the talks on aviation agreements, a key demand from countries such as France and Germany, For the first time, member states introduced a flexible sunset clause in the mandates to ensure that talks on bilateral agreements can resume if the EU-level ones drag on for too long.
EU member states may not engage in bilateral talks for aviation deals with third countries as long as EU-level negotiations are ongoing.
That has sparked concern among some Gulf carriers such as Emirates that the EU-level mandates would be used to freeze their flying rights in Europe.
The mandates for Turkey and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) which includes Laos, Thailand, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore, Myanmar, Brunei and Cambodia — will last four years, while the ones for Qatar and the UAE three years. The Commission will be able to ask for an extension if the talks are progressing.
However the Commission is expected to challenge the idea of a sunset clause at the EU’s top court, an EU official said.