The timetable for the European Commission (EC) to gain a mandate to negotiate an open skies deal with the USA is slipping as European transport ministers and the EC continue to debate the way forward for bilateral treaties.

Brussels insiders say that although reaching agreement by the June meeting of European Union (EU) transport ministers is still a possibility, attention is now likely to turn to the Italian presidency of the EU in the second half of the year.

However, transport ministers meeting in Athens at the end of March made clear that they accepted the principle of an EC mandate for an EU-wide bilateral with the USA. "There was a clear signal that the US mandate is OK," says Rene Fennes, general manager public policy at the Association of European Airlines.

The sticking point, however, is how to deal with other air service agreements. Some member states want to see the granting of a US mandate directly linked to the overall framework for all bilaterals. EC insiders say that France and Germany in particular want to see a "business-as-usual" approach to other bilateral agreements, an approach seen by the EC as unacceptable.

EC officials complain that the two countries are dragging their feet, as they are happy with the status quo. Brussels wants to see a more fundamental reform of the bilateral system, and argues that issues such as ownership and control now fall under its jurisdiction following a ruling by the European Court of Justice in November 2002 on open skies deals signed between eight member states and the USA in the 1990s. The call by the EC's competition authorities for more power over aviation matters with non-EU countries has added a further complication.

However, the EC makes it clear that it believes that this is all part of the negotiating process and that a deal can eventually be reached.

In the meantime, there is much uncertainty surrounding the bilaterals between European member states and countries other than the USA. Fennes points out that while the UK has stopped negotiating external bilaterals, the French continue to do so, and various other member states have a policy somewhere in between.

Airlines want to see an end to this uncertainty as soon as possible. British Airways chairman Lord Marshall says that BA wants to see "the EC taking on overall responsibility for air service negotiations with other countries, and for competitive issues for all aviation".

Source: Airline Business