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Ratification of the Eurocontrol convention, the creation of a European Aviation Safety Authority (EASA) and other major European Union (EU) aviation initiatives are being blocked by an obscure political dispute between the UK and Spain over the sovereignty of Gibraltar airport.

EU membership of Eurocontrol, vital if the latter is to acquire more decision-making power to resolve Europe's severe air traffic management problems, has now been delayed for 18 months by the dispute.

Ratification of the revised Eurocontrol convention is also being held up - although there are problems within the EC itself contributing to the delays.

According to political sources, the problem centres on the failure of a 1987 bilateral deal between the UK and Spain under which the Gibraltar airport issue is excluded ("derogated", in EU language) from any new aviation initiative.

The deal was originally struck allowing agreement on the first European air transport liberalisation package. It was linked to an agreement on joint development of the airport, which is located on the disputed isthmus of land joining the UK-owned territory of Gibraltar to the Spanish mainland.

The UK Foreign Office declines to comment officially on the Gibraltar question, but one source claims that Spain asks for the airport derogation clause to be included every time the European Commission (EC)makes an aviation-related proposal.

The UK refuses to accept this, claiming such a move undermines Gibraltar's rights and status as an EU member under the Treaty of Rome. It now approves the derogation clause only on a case-by-case basis and only if UK interests are served by the proposed legislation. "It is a crazy situation", says an EC source. "At present, all EU aviation legislation comes up against this problem." All attempts by the EC to broker a compromise on the Gibraltar issue have failed.

On 27 September, the protocol for the formation of EASA, to replace the Joint Aviation Authorities, is due to be adopted by the EC before approval by representatives of member states in the European Council. "Of course, this issue will be blocked as well," says the source.

The UK is understood, however, to have softened its position to the point where it will take a positive view of "pragmatic and sovereignty-neutral issues such as EUmembership of Eurocontrol". Spain, is expected to show a "similar willingness to be flexible".

EU member states have, says the source, "been patient over the Eurocontrol issue. They will be much less patient if EASA is delayed over this."

Source: Flight International