Business, Economics and Jobs

EU heads in the clouds

BRUSSELS, Belgium — At first glance, the Single Sky initiative would seem to be a clear example of why the old continent’s nations need the European Union.

Instead, it's fast becoming yet another illustration of how the EU's bold talk of greater unity and cooperation is thwarted by the rivalries and vested interests of its 27 member nations.

Launched back in the early 2000s, the Single European Sky aims to end the wasteful segmentation of air-traffic management above Europe.

Supporters say it would save taxpayers billions, give passengers cheaper airfares, slash flight times, improve safety and reduce carbon emissions.

Airlines badly want it and national governments in the EU were so impressed they agreed to it twice — in 2004 and 2009.

But almost 10 years on from that first deal, the 9 million commercial flights crisscrossing Europe every year must still navigate a costly patchwork of national jurisdictions little changed since the 1950s.

EU Transport Commissioner Siim Kallas has compared the Single Sky initiative to a desert mirage. "Each time you get close, it seems to move further away," he told reporters last week.

He’s threatening legal action against governments that fail to implement the agreement. Last week, he also unveiled a new package of measures he says would make Europe's air-traffic control even more rational and competitive.

His plans were met with a strike that shut down most flights over France for two days, while controllers from Portugal to Latvia joined the protest to support their French comrades.

Under pressure from unions and wary of losing national sovereignty, the French and German governments urged Kallas to reconsider.

EU airspace is currently a mosaic of 27 national control systems that operate 650 sectors from 60 separate centers. Lack of coordination or the risk of additional national fees mean planes rarely fly along shortest possible routes, the European Commission says.

Instead, the average commercial flight is 26 miles longer than necessary, the EU's executive calculates, claiming that brings extra costs of $7 billion a year.

"The US air-traffic management system is twice as efficient as that of the EU; it manages double the number of flights for a similar cost," Kallas's office said last week.

The Single Sky plan would create nine regional blocs to streamline air-traffic control, coordinated by a central network manager in Brussels.

Officials at EU headquarters fume that although governments agree in principle on the plan’s benefits, they block its implementation when they fear streamlining could hit vested interests at home.

"We agree with the Single Sky," French Transport Minister Frederic Cuvillier told the LCP television channel last week. "What we don't agree with is using it as a pretext to call into question our operations and administration in France."

The project’s failings reflect deeper fragility within the European Union, as economic crisis reinforces a retrenchment of national interests over what EU officials are promoting as the greater good.

A year ago, a plan to prevent a repeat of recent catastrophic banking failures through a centrally funded mechanism that would save or wind up failing financial institutions while guaranteeing savers' deposits was deemed essential. Now Germany — facing elections in September — has cold feet.

Meeting European leaders in Northern Ireland on Monday, President Barack Obama agreed to launch talks to create the world's largest free-trade zone next month.

European leaders have been publicizing the potential benefits of the trans-Atlantic deal, estimated by EU headquarters to be worth $970 per European household. But many fear France's insistence that movies, music and online entertainment be excluded from the negotiations has already compromised a successful outcome.

Luxembourg and Austria are holding up tighter EU rules on tax evasion, Poland has blocked plans for long-term climate change targets and the list goes on.

However, the Single Sky deadlock hits particularly hard at the EU’s headquarters in Brussels.

The promise of cheaper air fares, fewer flight delays, improved air safety and a 10 percent reduction in the environmental impact of flying could give the EU a much-needed PR boost at a time when its popularity among crisis-weary citizens is in sharp decline.

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However, even as Kallas warns of air-traffic chaos ahead as the number of flights is expected to grow by 50 percent in the coming years, experts say countries will probably continue their resistance.

"It's political," says Aimee Turner, editor of Air Traffic Management magazine. "You're talking about 27 separate nation states who each protectively guard their air space for sovereignty issues, for revenue issues. They are not going to let it up lightly."

"They may talk a good game, but when push comes to shove, they've been woefully inadequate," she added in a telephone interview from her base in England. "It's really the European story laid bare."