Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) have begun to probe an open skies agreement between the European Union (EU) and Qatar following a corruption scandal that rocked Brussels. Four former and current MEPs were arrested in Belgium over allegations that they had been influenced by the governments of Qatar, Morocco, and Mauritania.
In December 2022, Karima Delli, the chair of the EP’s Committee on Transport and Tourism (TRAN), questioned the agreement in a letter to other MEPs, stating that granting “consent to this agreement at this stage could be difficult until it is established that conditions were transparent and unbiased”.
The open skies agreement between the EU and the Gulf State was signed on October 18, 2021, but has not yet been ratified by every state within the EU. While eight countries have done so, namely Austria, Czechia, Estonia, Greece, Hungary, Ireland, Latvia, Slovakia, and Romania, the other 19 member states are yet to apply the agreement.
On December 15, 2022, the EP adopted a motion to suspend all work on legislation related to Qatar until the corruption allegations have been properly investigated. This included the agreement between the EU and Qatar to liberate air services between the two sides.
“The European Parliament, […] suspends all work on legislative files relating to Qatar, particularly as regards visa liberalisation and the EU aviation agreement with Qatar, and planned visits, until the allegations have either been confirmed or dismissed,” read the document from December 15, 2022.
Creating a level playing field
Even if only eight member states have ratified the agreement between the EU and Qatar so far, 23 already have agreements in place liberalizing air traffic between themselves and the Gulf country.
As such, the goal of the open skies agreement was not to liberalize air traffic for flights from/to the EU and from/to Qatar. Instead, according to Carlos Bermejo Acosta, the Head of Unit at the Directorate-General for Mobility and Transport (DG MOVE) at the European Commission (EC), the agreement’s objective “was to create a level playing field, to have provisions dealing with fair competition with social, with environmental issues that will guarantee a level playing field and avoid distortions of competition in the future.”
The European Cockpit Association (ECA), a pilot union based in Brussels, criticized the deal, with Jon Horne, the then-President of ECA asking: “Why is the EU so eager to cut deals that undervalue its own aviation market?” The union head said in a statement issued in March 2019 that the EU is “worlds apart when it comes to labor rights and employment conditions” and Qatar “has a reputation of ignoring fundamental labor rights, not recognizing unions or collective bargaining.”
During the TRAN hearing, Acosta said that the EC and Qatari representatives have established a joint committee, “with a lot of information, transparency about the state of play of their accounts”.
“We shared, discussed, and I think everyone was very satisfied with the results of these discussions,” Acosta added.
However, MEPs are still not convinced that the agreement and joint committees have shed enough light on Qatar’s social issues.“ But does the Commission have a view on the social impact of the agreement, given that Qatari companies have poor standards on the right to strike, freedom of association, and other issues, and this may risk unfair competition with an EU aviation sector that domestically is already experiencing a race to the bottom in terms of labor standards?” asked Ciarán Cuffe, an MEP from the Group of the Greens/European Free Alliance (Greens/EFA).
Cuffe continued to press the EC’s representative on how it views state aid provided to Qatar Airways, the agreement’s enforcement, namely how the EU’s counterpart enforces the agreement and, lastly, the benefits to the EU.
“If Qatar has a population of 300,000 people, the EU has 100 million people. So, what’s the advantage therefore?” added Philippe Olivier, a member of the Identity and Democracy Group (ID Group).
Benefits to Europeans
While the transparency of the agreement has been brought into question, lawmakers from across the political spectrum have continued to ask about the benefits to Europe, considering the difference in market sizes.
“We would like to understand and clarify, what are the reasons why there is liberalization? Given the size differences of these markets and the fact that in Qatar, we have only got one company so there is no competition,” remarked Paolo Borchia, an MEP from ID Group.
While Qatar Airways is currently the only commercial airline registered in the Gulf state, Hamad International Airport (DOH) in Doha, Qatar, is one of the most well-connected airports in the world and the region. According to OAG, an analytics and data provider in the aviation industry, DOH is the third most connected airport in the Middle East. But competition is scarce. After analyzing capacity data from between September 2021 and August 2022, the company found that Qatar Airways operated 85% of the flights from/to DOH. This information is hardly surprising, given that the local government uses the airport and the airline to fuel the economy. According to monthly figures published by the government, the Gulf state had a population of more than 2.9 million as of January 2023, but there are only around 380,000 Qatari nationals living in the state.
However, the strategy employed by Qatar Airways throughout the years has been to utilize its geographical location as a connecting point between three continents: Africa, Asia, including Oceania, and Europe. Connecting travelers between the three allowed the capital’s airport to welcome 35 million passengers in 2022, according to figures compiled by the managing company of the airport. While the 2022 FIFA World Cup boosted those numbers, even then, 38.8 million passengers landed and departed DOH in 2019.
But Qatar only welcomed 2.1 million visitors in 2019, including cruise ship passengers and travelers by other means, highlighting that both DOH and Qatar Airways are heavily reliant on transit traffic.
“Could we not consider the suspension of the provisional application of this agreement?” asked Izaskun Bilbao Barandica, an MEP from the Renew Europe Group (Renew).
According to EC representative Acosta, the Commission was given the mandate to negotiate at an EU level with multiple countries, including China, India, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), the United Arab Emirates and, finally, Qatar in 2013. Citing a letter from 2015 compiled by French and German ministers, Acosta stated that lawmakers in both countries called on the EC to draw up an agreement with the Gulf countries with certain conditions. Those included fair competition and limited and gradual market access.
“This agreement is not something that the Commission only wanted and the Commission thought that it was a good idea but also the Parliament thought it was a good idea, and the member state also thought it was a good idea,” Acosta continued.
Acosta also noted that the contested open skies agreement is only an addition to bilateral agreements of 23 member states which do not include conditions related to “unfair competition, on social, and environment”.
“The agreement provides [the condition] that we can ask any sort of information about the account of Qatar Airways, and we have done that in the first joint committee,” Acosta continued, signaling that multiple parties asked questions about the airline’s financials and received “satisfactory responses”.
Even if Qatar has imposed a number of International Labor Organization’s (ILO) conventions, Acosta noted “we have to be realistic,” if the EU wants to impose its social norms on the country. “We do not do that with third countries,” he added. Similarly, environmental concerns need to respect international conventions, in addition to the fact that Qatar Airways informed the joint committee that it will be using 10% of Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF) by 2030.
In September 2022, the airline’s own pilots indicated that the company had been “pushing boundaries when making the rosters” on a regular basis, with flight crew having fallen asleep during flights multiple times.
“I would like to reassure you that when we were discussing social [conditions’] articles, we have NGOs, and we have associations who were trade unions, who were very pleased that we managed to go this far on an article on social issues, and that we went much further than we have done in other cases,” Acosta added.
Acosta did not provide further context regarding the benefits to the EU during the TRAN Committee hearing.