Qatar Knocks at EU Doors on Air Traffic Rights

The Qatari Minister of Transport, Jassim Saif Ahmed Al Sulaiti, met with the European Commission on 10 May to reinvigorate talks on an aviation agreement with the European Union. His government’s aim is to revive negotiations over comprehensive air traffic rights. Discussions had been stalled for almost half a year. France and Germany apparently prefer it that way, says online media EurActiv network.

QR is eager to extend their EU passenger and freighter services but meet skepticism and rejection  -  picture QR
QR is eager to extend their EU passenger and freighter services but meet skepticism and rejection - picture QR

The proposed deal with Qatar is only one of a series of “comprehensive agreements” the European Commission is keen on reaching with some of the fastest growing markets in the aviation sector, including the Gulf countries — Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates
Even if this aviation strategy was unveiled last December, the EU’s 28 national governments did not deliver the green light as fast as Transport Commissioner Violeta Bulc had expected. Member states barely discussed the issue over the first quarter of 2016. The terrorist attacks against Brussels Zaventem airport and a metro station in Brussels on 22 March contributed to further postpone discussions among EU transport ministers.
Officials close to Ms 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.
The Commission is now keen to bring the discussion back to the table. So does Slovakia, whose government will hold the rotating EU presidency next semester. The EC 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.

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Interests of Lufthansa and Air France-KLM at stake
Given the recent events, security concerns are expected to dominate most of the discussion among EU ministers. On top of that, 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. Both these 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 aviation 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.”

CLECAT warns of protectionist attitude
As a pre-emptive manoeuvre, 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.

The European freight forwarders’ umbrella organisation CLECAT takes a similar position, stating that introducing protectionist measures in response to competition concerns vis-à-vis third countries would be counterproductive, unsustainable, and would only serve to limit connectivity and growth.

Marcel Schoeters in Brussels

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