The European Commission is set to extend its legal challenge aimed at the six member states talking 'open skies' with the US to include the UK, in a seemingly unbalanced bid to win external competence in air service negotiations.

At presstime, the Commission was set to initiate legal proceedings against the UK Department of Transport. The notification, due in mid-July, follows similar letters sent out in June to the six European Union member states - Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, Luxembourg and Sweden - engaged in 'open skies' talks with the US.

The Commission believes it should have external competence because the 'open skies' agreements will affect the internal EU market. While this gives Brussels a strongcase against the 'six', the UK move is less convincing.

A Commission source says the action against London is in response to the US-UK mini-deal signed in June, which includes the opening of UK regional airports to US carriers. 'Basically, the UK already has an open skies agreement with the US, excluding Heathrow and Gatwick,' he explains.

UK officials are perplexed by the move, as they consider the latest round of US talks has given little away. The UK may have a case to answer, but the move smells of a double standard by Brussels.

Meanwhile, at presstime German officials were in Washington to consider beginning open skies talks and whether liberalisation should be achieved bilaterally or multilaterally. Germany and the US signed an interim accord last year, making a clear commitment 'to replace this basic agreement with a comprehensive new open skies air transport agreement' by late 1997. This has moved forward with US transportation secretary Federico Peña and German transport minister Matthias Wissman scheduled to meet in late July.

In the light of the US-German 'open skies' commitment a source close to the German transport ministry asks: 'If the UK gets a warning [letter], surely Germany should get one too?'

A Commission official says: 'We are in contact with the Germans who have been willing to cooperate more closely.' However, should Germany move any further towards open skies then Bonn, too, would receive a letter.

Transport commissioner Neil Kinnock is clearly behind the letters, having been boosted by a green light to the Commission from European transport ministers to prepare a detailed draft of an external negotiating mandate.

While the legal threats will stir up European political hornets' nests, Brussels' relations with Washington, already damaged by the US 'open skies' proposals, look set to worsen. US officials hint that support for EU-US bloc negotiations could falter if Kinnock continues to step outside the Commission mandate.

Source: Airline Business