Qataris fly to Brussels to unblock aviation deal with EU

The Qatari minister's visit came against the backdrop of the expansion of Gulf airlines in Europe. [Kiefer/Flickr]

The Qatari Minister of Transport, Jassim Saif Ahmed Al Sulaiti, will fly to Brussels on Tuesday (10 May) to reinvigorate talks on an aviation agreement with the European Union, which have been stalled for almost half a year.

Officials close to EU Transport Commissioner Violeta Bulc explained that the meeting will aim to push forward an agreement to open up European skies to Qatar Airways, while promoting better access to the oil-rich nation for European flag carriers.

As part of an aviation strategy unveiled last December, the Commission announced it would request mandates to reach “comprehensive agreements” with some of the fastest growing markets in the aviation sector, including the Gulf countries — Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates.

But the EU’s 28 national governments did not deliver the green light as fast as Bulc had expected.

EU makes slow progress on aviation deals with Gulf countries

EU member states have not even started discussing the mandate for the European Commission to negotiate agreements with fast-growing aviation countries in the Persian Gulf, despite a push from Brussels to get the green light by early spring.

Member states barely discussed the issue over the first quarter of 2016. The terrorist attacks against Zaventem airport and a metro station in Brussels on 22 March contributed to further postpone discussions among EU transport ministers.

The Commission is now keen to bring the discussion back to the table, and so does Slovakia, whose government will hold the rotating EU presidency next semester, EU officials explained.

The executive wants enough progress made to discuss mandates for the comprehensive agreements during the Transport Council on 7 June. This is three months later than the originally foreseen date.

However, security concerns are expected to dominate most of the discussion among EU ministers. And member states such as France and Germany, are in no hurry to sign a deal with Gulf nations, given the opposition of their legacy carriers Lufthansa and Air France-KLM.

MEPs call for strong action against subsidies for Gulf airlines

The European Parliament called for fair competition from the Gulf countries in the aviation sector.

These two nations, and a few other member states, are reluctant to open European skies to powerful airlines such as Qatar Airways, Etihad and Emirates whom they accuse of unfairly subsidising their air carriers.

In its December strategy, the EU promised to address the issue of “subsidisation and unfair pricing practices” in the context of the negotiations with Gulf countries.

Moreover, the document also said that “the Commission is considering proposing new EU measures to address unfair practices” from third countries and third country operators “as soon as possible in 2016”.

As a preemptive maneuver, Emirates sent a letter to several European governments warning of the “growing pressure” on the Commission by Paris and Berlin, which could end up damaging connectivity and tourism growth in Europe.

“It has come to our attention that there has been growing pressure on the European Commission from the French and German Transport ministers to ensure conditions are virtually impossible for all sides to adhere to, thereby freezing Emirates’ flying rights as long as any negotiations are ongoing,” the letter says.

High temperatures

The Qatari minister’s visit came amid problems in the delivery of new Airbus planes to Qatar Airways.

The company announced this week that it will reduce the frequency of 15 routes amid concerns with the engine of the new Airbus A320neo, Reuters reported.

The European manufacturer was expected to deliver the first of these aircraft in December, but refused to accept the delivery after it pointed out that their American Pratt & Whitney engines were inadequately tested for the Gulf region’s high temperatures.

In its aviation strategy adopted in December 2015, the European Commission highlighted its intention of negotiating comprehensive aviation agreements with high-growth markets in Asia and the Middle East.

Such a strategy "can contribute to improving market access and investment opportunities for European aviation in important overseas markets, increasing Europe's international connectivity and ensuring fair and transparent market conditions for EU airlines,” the Commission said.

The EU has reached aviation agreements with Canada, Georgia, Israel, Jordan, Moldova, Morocco, US, and the Western Balkans. An agreement with Ukraine is ready to be signed, while the EU authorities are negotiating similar deals with Australia, Azerbaijan, Brazil, Lebanon, New Zealand, Tunisia.

Now the Commission is requesting to open negotiations with Armenia, China, Mexico, and Turkey as well as groups of nations, including ASEAN countries (Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar/Burma, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam), and Gulf countries (Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates),

Out of the 335 million passengers that flew in and out the EU in 2014, 42% were covered by external aviation agreements already signed, and 72% would be covered if all proposed deals are reached.

EU plans measures to even competition with non-EU airlines

The European Commission is considering new measures to tackle what it sees as unfair competition from non-EU airlines as part of a package of proposals unveiled on Monday (7 November) designed to boost the competitiveness of Europe's aviation sector.

  • 10 May: Qatar´s Minister of Transport, Jassim Saif Ahmed Al Sulaiti, visits Brussels.
  • 7 June: Transport Council

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