The European Commission (EC) has stepped up its bid to become the dominant player in European external aviation relations by seeking a mandate to negotiate air service agreements on behalf of the European Union (EU) with neighbouring states to the south and east.

Brussels hopes that an agreement covering south-eastern Europe will help realise its goal of a European Common Aviation Area (ECAA) covering the vast majority of Europe outside Russia. The EC has had a mandate to negotiate an ECAA since 1996, although this process was effectively overtaken by the succession of 10 new states to the EU this May.

More ambitiously, the EC says that "in the long run, a common Euro-Mediterranean aviation area could be considered" while admitting that the EC could not currently handle on its own the "administrative burden" this would involve. Brussels is also stepping up talks with major trading partners in the Asia-Pacific region, as well as Russia.

Brussels is targeting the western Balkans, Morocco, Jordan and Lebanon in the first wave of negotiations, with Croatia seen as the most mature market and closest to full membership of the Joint Aviation Authorities certification regime.

Brussels says that most neighbouring states have indicated their interest in a Community agreement to overcome the legal deficiencies in bilaterals with EU member states following a European Court of Justice (ECJ) ruling, which outlawed nationality clauses.

However, it also makes it clear that not all potential partners can meet the necessary safety and security standards that are a prerequisite for an EC air deal and says the widely differing stages of aviation development mean a "flexible" approach needs to be taken in negotiations, "in particular as regards transitional periods". It also warns that open aviation areas will be the only way to avoid a "network of differing Community-third country relations".

Ever since the ECJ ruling in late 2002 effectively split the balance of power for negotiating third-country bilaterals between member states and the EC, there has been a tug-of-war between the two power blocs on the issue of deals with countries other than the USA. The Association of European Airlines (AEA) is urging the EC to concentrate on its efforts to agree a deal with the USA: "Further mandates, without similar analyses of likely industry and consumer benefits, would be premature."

Source: Airline Business