Gibraltar dispute delays EU airspace reform

New rules to integrate European airspace were agreed on by the Council. [Doug/Flickr]

A British-Spanish territorial dispute over Gibraltar threatened to block implementation of an agreement by European Union member states on Wednesday (3 December) to merge national air corridors to create shorter flight paths and cut costs and carbon dioxide emissions.

The Single European Sky initiative, launched in 2004, would merge corridors into transnational “blocs”. Flights will become shorter and more cost-efficient as the new law improves the management of the air traffic capacity by avoiding detours.

But Spain wants Gibraltar airport excluded from EU aviation law until a dispute about sovereignty over the isthmus, a narrow strip of land connecting Gibraltar to Spain, is resolved.

“The Council has not taken any position on the application of this proposal to Gibraltar airport,” the Council of the European Union, comprised of the EU’s 28 member states, said in a statement.

Ana Pastor Julian, Spain’s minister of public works and transport, described the airport, situated on the isthmus, as “an area which is being illegally occupied by the United Kingdom”.

Britain says that under a 2006 Cordoba agreement between London, Madrid and the Gibraltarian government, Spain agreed to stop seeking the exclusion of Gibraltar airport from EU aviation measures.

“There is absolutely no reason at all for Gibraltar to be excluded from continuing participating in these measures,” said Robert Goodwill, British under secretary of state for transport.

Under the current air corridor system, responsibility for airspace belongs to each country, which usually manages its flight paths and charges navigation and terminal fees, estimated by the Eurocontrol air traffic agency at some €8billion a year.

Gibraltar, a rocky outcrop off Spain’s southern coast ceded to Britain in 1713, has been an increasing source of diplomatic tension since the current Spanish government took office in 2011.

Spain claims the whole of Gibraltar, but views the isthmus as a distinct question. According to Spanish diplomatic sources, it was not included in the treaty ceding Gibraltar to Britain three centuries ago, so has always been Spanish territory.

The Council agreement will need to be finalised in discussions with the European Parliament next year. However, until the wrangle over Gibraltar’s airport is solved the updated airspace reform proposals cannot be implemented.

Commenting after news of the agreement, Gesine Meisner MEP, Coordinator on the European Parliament's Transport Committee for the Liberal ALDE group, said: "Although the Council position is not a breakthrough, it is great news that this file is progressing. We cannot explain to citizens anymore that airplanes are not flying direct routes from airport A to airport B but zigzag due to the national organisation of air traffic controls. More direct routes would mean less fuel consumption and fewer emissions, which would be beneficial to airlines, consumers and the environment."

ALDE MEP Matthijs van Miltenburg, shadow-rapporteur for EU Passenger Rights legislation, said: "I welcome the decision made by the Council today on the European Single Sky. This is a first step towards improving the competitiveness of the aviation sector. Now it is important to use this momentum to move forward in other aviation files, such as passenger rights. On the latter, we urge the Council to come forward with their position as both passengers and air carriers long for clarity on the rules. Passengers need to be able to quickly and easily make use of their rights when their flights are delayed or cancelled, or in cases of lost luggage. Airlines on the other hand need to know which rules they have to comply with in order to offer proper assistance to their customers."

The UK Foreign Secretary, Philip Hammond has called Foreign Minister Gentiloni of Italy, which currently holds the EU Presidency, to express Britain’s concern about the process for agreeing EU aviation legislation Single European Sky 2 plus (SESII+), which has been delayed because Spain has refused to recognise that Gibraltar must be included in the legislation.

Commenting after the call, the Foreign Secretary said: "I made it clear to Italian Foreign Minister Gentiloni that this legislation cannot progress until the issue of Gibraltar is resolved. I underlined that an important piece of legislation for Member States and industry had been held up by political-point scoring on the part of the Spanish. British sovereignty over Gibraltar is an issue outside the competence of the EU, and a distraction. We are confident that the EU will have no option but to follow its own laws and apply the legislation to Gibraltar."

"Spain is trying to use this EU process to force sovereignty negotiations on Gibraltar. Let there be no doubt. The UK will never enter into arrangements under which the people of Gibraltar would pass under the sovereignty of another State against their wishes. Nor will we enter into a process of sovereignty negotiations with which Gibraltar is not content."

Under the Single European Sky legislation, national air traffic control organisations should work together in nine regional airspace blocks, or FABs, to increase efficiency, cut costs and reduce emissions.

Functional Airspace Blocs, or FABs, are a cornerstone towards a single airspace that aim to reduce the fragmentation along national borders in air traffic management.

By enabling airplanes to fly straighter lines at better altitudes, FABs are expected to save fuel and reduce delays, bringing an estimated €5 billion in savings annually.

The EU mandated the full implementation of FABs by 4 December 2012.

But delays over its implementation has led the European Commission to launch proceedings against 18 EU member states.

In July this year, it sent formal notice to Austria, Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Greece, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain and the United Kingdom for failing to comply.

>> Read: Brussels loses patience over Single Sky delays

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