The issue of subsidies and “unfair pricing” in the aviation sector will be an “important” part of the upcoming talks with Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Turkey, according to the latest draft of the aviation package seen by EURACTIV.
Signalling the importance attached to the situation by the EU authorities, the document adds that the European Commission is “considering new EU measures to address unfair practices from third countries and third country operators”, although it does not give further details at this stage.
EU officials told EURACTIV that this draft is close to be the definitive one, although it could be subject to additional changes early next week, before the announcement next Wednesday (4 December).
The issue of subsidies to foreign carriers has become a source of concern for member states, especially for France and Germany, as well as MEPs. But in a debate in the European Parliament’s plenary, the Commissioner for Transport, Violeta Bulc, played down the impact of subsidies on the difficulties affecting the aviation sector in Europe. Bulc told MEPs that the use of “alleged” subsidies by Gulf airlines, and the related “negative consequences” in Europe still remain to be proven.
The package however clearly reflects this concern. EU officials explained that the document intends to balance the view of those who primarily focus on the “unfair” public support offered by third countries, and those who want to address this issue as part of a wider strategy to make the European airlines more competitive.
In light of the lack of an international legal framework to deal with unfair commercial practices, the communication stresses that “it is important and legitimate” to ensure “fair and sustainable competition” from third countries.
Moreover, the Commission acknowledges that protection from these practices is currently not seen as “effective” by the stakeholders.
Therefore, the executive will address the issue of the subsidies in the context of the negotiation of the EU comprehensive air transport agreements, the draft document says.
In addition, the text states that the institution will intensify “corresponding policy action” at the International Civil Aviation Organization level.
Next week, the European Commission will ask member states for the green light to start the negotiations of comprehensive agreements with China, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the UAE, Kuwait, Qatar, Oman, Mexico and Armenia.
Its priority is to reach an agreement with the UAE, where Bulc travelled earlier this month in her first mission abroad.
As part of its strategy to ensure market access, based on a level playing field, the Commission will also adopt interpretative guidelines on the application of the 2008 Regulation on the ownership and control of EU airlines to bring more legal certainty for investors and airlines.
Although most of the criticism has gone against the alleged subsidies given by Qatar and the UAE to their carriers, EU sources noted that Turkey represents “a bigger challenge for Europe than the Gulf countries”.
The country is in the process of concluding a third airport in Istanbul, a huge project expected to be the largest airport in the world, with an annual capacity of 150 million passengers.
Turkey is situated in an even more strategic area than the Gulf states, offering a direct link between East-West routes. From there, airlines can fly to every medium size city in Europe using fuel efficient regional commuter aircraft, such as the Boeing 737.
Meanwhile, Turkish Airlines, the country’s flag carrier, flies to numerous European cities, thanks to Ankara’s bilateral agreements with various member states. In Germany, a country reluctant to open up its airports to the Gulf airlines, the company flies to 14 airports, the country with the largest number of airports outside of Turkey.
According to EU officials, the public support received by Turkish airlines is comparable to Qatar and the UAE’s support for their respective airlines. However, Germany and France have largely ignored it, officials told EURACTIV.
Berlin and Paris have been the most vocal protesters against the subsidies, due to the struggling situation of their national carriers, particularly Lufthansa and Air France.
The same sources pointed out that it would be “critical” for the success of the talks with the oil-rich monarchies that Lufthansa and Air France speed up their renovation efforts, currently facing internal hurdles.
Although the Commission will ask for the mandate to begin negotiations next week, the executive expects the ‘okay’ from the Council by March. It will be only the beginning of a period of “hard work”, EU officials concluded.