EU probes open skies agreement with Qatar following corruption scandal


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.   

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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. 

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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. 

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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.” 

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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 CiarĂ¡n 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).

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