A bribery and corruption investigation linking high-ranking members of the European Parliament (MEPs) with Qatar, shook Brussels in December. Four people are now facing preliminary charges of corruption, money laundering and participation in a criminal organization.
Although there is no information linking this scandal to aviation, the crime investigation prompted calls to review the EU-Qatar air services agreement, concluded in 2021. The agreement was heavily criticised – including by European pilots – for being unbalanced, resulting primarily in huge economic benefits for Qatar.
After the corruption scandal broke out, the EU Parliament woke up to that idea.
But to the ones who had followed the negotiations with Qatar, and who are familiar with the EU aviation policy over the years, it was clear that it is unlikely to find a crime at the basis of the agreement.
The European Commission’s ultra-liberal approach to aviation and Qatar’s wealth were sufficient to make the deal happen, even without bags of money under the table. The corruption scandal reveals however just the top of the iceberg – i.e. the reprehensible and criminal side of the problem with foreign countries’ influence. But the issue is bigger than that. And the aviation industry isn’t isolated from it.
The EU Commission in general, and DG Mobility and Transport in particular, have always been vocal supporters of liberalisation. Over the years, the EU negotiated comprehensive air services agreements with countries such as the US, Canada and Morocco, allowing airlines to expand their businesses. But while an agreement with such markets makes economic sense, the interests for the EU to negotiate with Qatar seemed awkward at best. What could a deal with a rather small country in a sparsely populated area offer to EU airlines and EU passengers?
Initially, the EU intended to conclude a regional agreement with several Gulf Countries but after a couple of meetings, only Qatar remained at the negotiating table.
ECA criticized the decision to continue the negotiations with Qatar only. From the European Pilots’ perspective, it was clear that an agreement with Qatar would be disproportionate, giving access to the full EU market without offering equal opportunities on the other side. The agreement gives Qatar direct access to 27 EU countries, 500 million customers and a large cargo market. The EU gains access to one single consumer market in an isolated region, with only 3 million customers.
However, the Commission and the EU Member States had their reasons.
The Commission saw an opportunity in an aviation agreement with Qatar as a bargaining chip in a wider macro-economic and political strategy. Qatar plays an important role in the difficult political setup in the Middle East, is an important economic partner as one of the best clients for the EU luxury industry sectors, as well as an important client for the EU’s defence industry. And, very close to our industry: Qatar was one of the most important clients for Airbus. Aviation and the air services agreement is therefore “only” one of the areas that the EU and Qatar have discussed when talking about economic cooperation.
But the Commission had other reasons too. Qatar had already negotiated bilateral agreements with almost all EU and EEA member states. It also started to negotiate and agree “new generation” bilateral agreements with some EU members granting generous traffic rights which, in combination, were de facto opening the EU market to the Gulf country.
Each of the countries, which negotiated those “new generation” air services agreements had their own reasons. For example, Poland frames that bilateral cooperation with Qatar within a broader strategic cooperation in the field of energy. The aviation agreement concluded in 1998 is 1 of the 7 economic agreements between the 2 countries. The close ties illustrated: Wrocław is the city which Qatar Airways chose for its European Customer Service Center.
Qatar has also been a player that has seen an opportunity in filling in the gaps opened by the bankruptcy of various carriers. Qatar sought greater access to the EU market in exchange of these investments.
This is where the decision of the European Commission to negotiate with Qatar directly and stop the chaotic multiplication of those bilateral agreements in Europe, made sense. The EU Commission’s agreement provided an opportunity to include some safeguards, notably on fair competition and on social protection of workers. Throughout the negotiations, ECA repeatedly advocated for such clauses to protect both workers and passengers. Qatar has a reputation of ignoring fundamental labour rights, not recognising unions or collective bargaining. Workers’ rights became also a key concern surrounding the World Cup in Qatar. It is unlikely that any ‘social clause’ in aviation – even if it includes ironclad social guarantees – would work out such large differences.
The current scandal reveals the political games behind economic deals and raises the question of the consequences of globalization. The economic deals with certain countries have increased the influence of foreign interests in our industries and thereby putting at risk the sustainability of the European socio-economic model.
Aviation is a strategic sector. If it was not clear before, nobody should have any doubts after COVID, where airlines played a key role in delivering urgent medical supplies and distributing vaccines. The EU and the Member States must consider any deal that might compromise the European air connectivity and the sovereignty of EU carriers. That is why European pilots are opposed to Qatar’s push at ICAO and in the EU to liberalise the existing air carriers’ ownership and control rules.