As US air-services negotiators, return from an apparently promising meeting with their British counterparts, and the European Commission (EC) suddenly discovers that it doesn't like what the US negotiators have agreed with the rest of Europe, a new question arises. Who really talks for Europe, and who really talks for the USA?

It is clear that there are two distinct lines of thought in Europe over bilateral deals - those who think individual countries should negotiate their own deals with third countries like the USA, and those who think that the European Union should do it centrally. It is equally clear that there are also two distinct groups in the USA - those airlines which favour progress through individual open-skies agreements with Europe, and those like American Airlines, which are holding out for the potentially richer prize of breaking the stranglehold at London Heathrow. The fact that there is little agreement between what are, after all, powerful and committed rivals, does not bode well.

The lack of a clear, cohesive policy on either side of the Atlantic is at once stymieing progress on the crucial US/UK bilateral and promoting a headlong rush into other individual agreements, which could lead to eventual chaos.

All the signs are that, for the first time in a long while, real progress is being made in the US/UK talks - if only in that both delegations appear to have mandates from their respective political masters to discuss substantive issues. The result is that the less-contentious issues in these talks appear to be being resolved at a remarkable rate - but that the real sticking points remain stuck. The yielding of the odd slot at Heathrow, and the renewed clearance for the British Airways/USAir code-share, are important steps - but minor steps compared with those which would have to be taken if the bigger US airlines were to obtain the access they want at Heathrow.

While those minor steps are being taken, however, the rush of open-skies agreements between the USA and Britain's fellow Europeans continues - much to the alarm of the centralists in Brussels. The EC has long argued that it and it alone, should be responsible for negotiating bilateral air-services agreements with non-EU countries, but until very, very recently, it has tabled no proposals on how that should be achieved. Now, as the walls of Fortress Europe crumble under the assault from the USA, the EC has suddenly produced its vision of the future.

That this vision has taken so long to make its now-rushed appearance perhaps explains the EC's other great contribution to the bilaterals debate - its sudden contention that many of the USA/Europe open-skies agreements reached so far might break European law. If the EC is to gain any credence for this contention, it might first have to explain why it has taken two years since the Dutch signed the first such agreement for Brussels to notice the "illegality".

Whether or not such agreements breach European law, the underlying realisation of the EC is right - that with so many bilateral agreements now in place and the full liberalisation of the internal EU air-services market just around the corner, a cohesive pan-European agreement has probably become an irrelevance. Most of the access that a US carrier would have expected to negotiate under such an agreement will be available to it through what is already in place.

If the EC is to have a representative role, it might be only with other countries, which have not yet proposed such comprehensive agreements as have the USA and the Europeans. There will be many - not least the more powerful European carriers - who will regard that as no bad thing. Other powerful voices, such as Britain's Civil Aviation Authority, will be less pleased. Their futures are tied up in European co-operation in all other aspects of aviation, and a multi-lateral multi-agreement air-travel market is inconsistent with that future. With belated haste, the EC should remember that, as the USA learned at the hands of wily UK negotiators, thee is no going back from bilateral commitments.

Source: Flight International