Ten European countries are expected to sign up to join the European Common Aviation Area (ECAA) next year, ahead of receiving full membership of the European Union (EU).

The Czech Republic, Hungary, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Slovenia, and Slovakia, as well as Malta and Cyprus, have had applications pending for membership of the EU for some time. In October, agreements were finally signed with Brussels which will now see them admitted by 2004. That, in turn, has put their membership of the ECAA single aviation market back on the agenda.

The aim had been for these states to join the single air market ahead of full EU membership. However, this process has been mired in Brussels politics for the past two years, held up by a dispute between the European Commission (EC) and the EU member states over who had the right to sign deals with countries hoping to join the single air market.

Brussels argued that this should be a community agreement signed by the EC, while member states, represented by the Council of Ministers, were pushing for a "mixed agreement", that would split competency between the two bodies. A recent European Court ruling came down on the side of the EC.

The EC has now produced a draft agreement over ECAA membership which is now awaiting a response from the 10 new states.

The EC hopes that agreement can be reached by the end of this year. Those close to the talks warn that this deadline is very likely to slip, however, and it may be later in 2003 before a final agreement is reached.

Brussels insiders say that environmental and social legislation and state aid have all been "sensitive issues" in the negotiations. Cabotage rights to fly internally within other states was another problem area when the ECAA was originally founded under the third liberalisation package of 1993. Cabotage was ultimately delayed until 1997. But it is apparently less of a sticking point this time round as there are fewer attractive domestic routes within the states now seeking membership.

A key area of negotiations, however, is the transition period for membership of ECAA. Some of the aspiring members, notably Hungary and Poland, have been keen to have a period of grace to protect their flag carriers. Malev, the Hungarian flag carrier, is still being restructured ahead of a hoped-for privatisation.

One issue yet to be decided is whether there will be a standard transition date for all states, or if some will get a special deal. The delays over the last two years mean that, in practical terms, the 2004 accession date is not that far off anyway, and the EC is adamant that there will be no extensions for new states beyond that date. However, countries in the second wave of accession to the EU in 2007, such as Bulgaria and Romania, may well get extensions beyond the 2004 deadline.

Source: Airline Business