Looked at through the lens of aviation, the European Union seems to be trying to go in two opposite directions at the same time.
On one hand, the European Commission has just published what it calls “a new Aviation Strategy for Europe.” This four-part plan includes initiatives to accelerate the Single European Sky project; to maintain “high EU standards” on safety, security, social and environmental issues; and to “make progress on innovation, digital technologies, and investments. So far, so bland. These are issues that the EC has been talking about for years, and this latest announcement would hardly be newsworthy were it not for the fourth initiative: “Place the EU as a leading player in international aviation, whilst guaranteeing a level playing field.”
In order to guarantee this level playing field, the Commission says it “adopted an ambitious package of proposals to negotiate EU-level comprehensive aviation agreements with key partner countries.” The target countries are Bahrain, China, Kuwait, Mexico, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates, as well as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. Anyone who has been paying attention to European aviation in the last year will recognize several countries on the list that Air France-KLM and Lufthansa have accused of providing unfair state aid to their airlines.
Taken altogether, these four initiatives have a single common theme – the EU as a single entity. With regard to issues both internal (the Single European Sky) and external (unfair competition from the Middle East), the document presumes that the European Union is a political unit in much the same fashion as the US, or Canada or China – able to speak to the world with one voice.
But consider several recent items that seem to indicate just the opposite.
First, a protest by employees of ASL Airlines France over a French mail contract award. La Poste, the French postal service, recently awarded a mail transport contract to Sweden-based carrier West Atlantic, effective 1 January 2016. The move raised the ire of workers at ASL Airlines France, which has held the contract for some time. Unions representing the workers petitioned La Poste to review the decision, which they called “a programmed social destruction.” The unions also accused La Poste of “social dumping” which could lead to as many as 465 job losses.
All of which is more than a little ironic, given that ASL Airlines France is owned by Ireland-based ASL Group which in turn is owned by Belgium-based Compagnie Maritime Belge and Ireland-based 39 Air Freighters Ltd.
But much more to the point, we doubt that workers at ASL Airlines France would protest very loudly if their airline won a contract in Sweden.
Second, unions representing workers at Luxembourg-based Cargolux have made similar accusations of social dumping over Cargolux’s activities in Italy via its Cargolux Italia subsidiary. The last time we checked, both Luxembourg and Italy are members of the EU – just as France and Sweden are.
Third, with the wind-down of Martinair, and the paring down of KLM’s own freighter fleet to just three units, there is increasing demand to allow other airlines to fill the need for main-deck lift at Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport (AMS). But some in the air freight community are expressing frustration over what they perceive as a protectionist attitude on the part of the Dutch government toward KLM’s position at Schiphol, particularly on the cargo side.
Obviously, this attitude of wanting the benefits of union only as long as nothing has to be sacrificed, is not unique to aviation, nor, for that matter, to Europe. But if the European Commission wants the international playing field to be level, it must also look at its own internal playing field.