What a difference a year makes. Just 12 months previously transport commissioner Neil Kinnock was faced with a majority of member states opposed to granting Brussels its holy grail - the external negotiating mandate for bilateral air service agreements. In mid-June, he won over enough support to start negotiations with the US on 'soft rights' issues.

The scope falls short of Kinnock's stated aim of putting all European Union members on par with the US by presenting a single negotiating position on 'hard' traffic rights. But after winning the support of all but one of the member states, it remains only a matter of time before Kinnock gets his hands on the big prize.

The 14 to 1 vote by European transport ministers, which clears the way for the Commission to enter talks with Washington on 'soft rights', which are limited to regulatory issues such as competition rules and ownership, is in fact the only mandate Kinnock needs. 'We have one mandate that includes hard rights, but the member states asked us to concentrate on soft right issues,' insists one senior European Commission official.

The first talks with Washington are scheduled for September. Before this the Commission intends to garner the views of member states and Europe's airlines. The Commission source concedes that discussions with the US are unlikely to get very far without traffic rights on the table and does not rule out 'an exchange of views' on that issue. Brussels is naturally sympathetic to Washington's wishes and in many ways has the US to thank for finally getting the mandate. It was Washington's policy of concluding separate open skies agreements with six

EU member states that gave the Commission the lever it needed by arguing the individual agreements would have an adverse economic effect on the single aviation market. The Commission official envisages a time not 'far off' when Kinnock will have to go back to transport ministers with a request for a 'universal agreement'.

This universal agreement may have to be forced on the UK, the sole dissenter in the June vote. London continued to put up a smokescreen after its humiliating defeat, by claiming responsibility for limiting the scope of the Commission's mandate. This was in fact achieved by France, a last minute convert to the 'yes' camp. Dissenters' views do not have to be adopted by the Commission. Furthermore, the UK appears at odds with the views of British Airways, with Kinnock claiming the support of the carrier's chief executive Bob Ayling.

One further sticking point remains. If the Commis-sion gets the green light to start negotiating with the US on hard rights, the weakness of southern Europe's carriers means member states like Greece, Spain, Portugal and Italy will insist on transitional measures. In unofficial talks in April, Washington indicated it would not accept a gradual opening of the European market, but is has already set a precedent in the open skies accord it reached with Canada last year.

Any fears raised by airlines or member states that Brussels will have the power to allocate traffic rights centrally are also ill-founded, insists the Commission source. 'National governments will take decisions at ground level.' The Commission would need another 500 staff to carry out that function, and even by Brussels bureaucratic standards that's excessive.

Source: Airline Business