Talks resume to end 'open-skies' deadlock

US and British officials are to begin three days of talks in London today in a new attempt to reach a transatlantic aviation agreement, as Neil Kinnock, the European transport commissioner, considers court action against the UK to block bilateral negotiations.

Mr Kinnock has been campaigning for a mandate for the Commission to negotiate "open-skies" agreements for the EU as a whole. He has already threatened court action against six of the smaller member states - Belgium, Denmark, Luxembourg, Sweden, Austria and Finland - if they refuse to pull out of bilateral talks with the US.

Last month he wrote to Brian Mawhinney, the transport secretary, asking him to drop bilateral talks with the US on a number of issues including code-sharing by airlines and air cargo. He asked Mr Mawhinney not to prejudice the EU negotiating position and requested a reply by last Friday.

The Department of Transport yesterday confirmed that Mr Mawhinney had replied. He is understood to have reasserted Britain's right to hold bilateral talks, which puts the onus on Mr Kinnock to decide whether to carry out a threat he made last month to add the UK to the list of possible court actions.

The negotiations today at the Department of Transport resume talks that broke down in Washington a month ago after failure to resolve the question of extra access to Heathrow for US airlines.

The Government is also pressing the US to allow larger British stakes in US airlines. This is one of the key issues Mr Kinnock has put in his own proposed negotiating mandate, demanding that the US should agree to the looser restrictions in Europe, which permit 49 per cent stakes by non-EU companies in European airlines. Most of the attention in the bilateral talks between the UK and the US has been concentrated on increasing access for British airlines to the US in return for concessions at Heathrow, with the Americans cool on British proposals for greater access to UK regional airports.

The latest series of talks resumed in March after a gap of a year following a US walkout when the previous round broke down.

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