ALAN GEORGE BRUSSELS The protracted project to create a European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) now seems unlikely to come to fruition until 2002 at the earliest.

It still remains uncertain whether the new body will be an agency of the European Commission (EC), or, as originally envisaged, an international agency based on a treaty to be signed by European Union (EU) and non-EU states.

EU transport ministers had agreed that the agency should be a non-EC international body. A draft convention for the EASA was prepared at the time of resignation in March last year of Jacques Santer's Commission. At that time, it was hoped that the organisation could be working by 2001 or 2002.

One of the first decisions of the new Transport Commissioner, Loyola de Palacio, however, was that the EASA should be a full EC body. She felt that it would be hard to get the agreement of some states for an effective international organisation and that its operations would be cumbersome. It also runs counter to the trend of greater European integration to which the new Commission of Romano Prodi is committed.

One problem is that the proposed EASA convention would require changes to some countries' constitutions.

A December EU transport ministers' meeting approved the change of direction, with most delegates saying that they would not be dogmatic, but would support any project for the rapid formation of a strong agency with executive powers, the membership of which could include all European states. In the case of an EC body, the latter requirement would be met as the EU itself gains new members.

Support for the EASA as a strictly EC body is understood to be at best patchy. The UK - fearing further transfers of power from London to Brussels - continues to back the original concept of an international body, while other EU states, including France and Germany, have yet to take a position.

The industry's attitude mirrors that of the December transport ministers' meeting. The Brussels-based European Association of Aerospace Industries (AECMA) has not officially stated a position, but the organisation is understood to remain firmly committed to an EASA withexecutive and regulatory competence. Whether it is an international or an EC body is of less concern to AECMA than that it should be strong and effective.

"For now, the idea of an international organisation is on the backburner," confirms a well-placed EC official in Brussels. "In parallel, there is a project to create a 15-country EC body."

A discussion paper prepared by the EC's Directorate General for Transport was due for consideration at a 28 March European transport ministers' meeting. If no objections are raised, a formal proposal for the EASA could be formulated by mid-year.

A lengthy legislative process could ensue. The EU's Treaty of Rome founding document stipulates that member states can delegate executive power to the EC only via the Council of Ministers. This means the EASA could only be a technical body, with the key role of advising the EC on safety regulations and monitoring conformity with them. Executive decisions could only be made by the national ministers within the Council.

Such an EASA would lack teeth and, in that respect, would differ little from the Joint Aviation Authorities which the EASA will supersede. A 27-member club of national civil aviation authorities, the JAA issues a range of aviation directives, but they are not legally binding on JAA member states.

The creation of an EASA as an EC agency with clear executive powers - as demanded by EU member states and industry alike - would require a change to the Treaty of Rome. This could take 18 months, say officials. It might not be possible to start work on the EASA's establishment until at least mid-2002.

Source: Airline Business