EU seeks role in air talks

Neil Kinnock, European commissioner for transport, wants to intervene in crucial civil aviation talks between Britain and the US.

Negotiations between the two on the sensitive Bermuda II bilateral agreement collapsed recently.

The Commission is worried that if the discussions go ahead Britain will undermine efforts to liberalise European aviation, according to a Commission official yesterday. "We fear that this will have a distorting impact," she said.

The Commission wants to handle such negotiations itself. It is preparing a mandate to negotiate a Europe-wide agreement with the US, and hopes to finalise this in mid-May before getting approval from EU member states in June. Before then, it wants details of the Anglo-US talks from Brian Mawhinney, the transport minister.

Mr Kinnock, former leader of the Labour Party, has already threatened legal action against six EU countries - Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, Luxembourg and Sweden - that have held "open skies" talks with the US. The pacts are intended to make it easier for airlines to fly to and from the countries affected.

The Commission fears that while this will lead to greater access to European destinations for US airlines, the European carriers will not benefit. It is preparing a letter, to be sent to Britain in the next few days, requesting information on the talks with the US. It believes these concern cargo rather than passenger traffic.

Mr Kinnock has tried to emphasise that the Commission is not pursuing the issue purely to gain influence in a very sensitive sector.

"Of course, we are sensitive to the fact that member states want to pursue their own track," the Commission official said, but she argued that fragmentation of efforts to reach agreement on transatlantic travel could undermine EU moves to liberalise European aviation.