Friday, June 28, 2013

■ TUNISIA: European Union, Tunisia set to conclude latest round of talks on Open Skies agreement.

Negotiations between Tunisia and the European Union (EU) regarding a possible Open Skies agreement are set to come to an end today amid reports that Tunisia's Minister of Transport, Abdelkrim Harouni, believes that national carrier, Tunisair (TU), was no longer in any dangerand could hold its own in an open market. Open skies is an air transport liberalization scheme in which any barriers of entry to participant countries’ airlines are reciprocally lifted as well as regulations on all forms of air transportation – cargo or passenger – within their sovereign borders. 

Tunisia entered into negotiations with the EU in January 2011 concerning a potential bilateral open-skies agreement that would be effective as of November 2011.  However, owing to continuous delays with Tunisia's Ministry of Transport, talks have dragged on until now. As such, the European delegation led by Mr. Philippe Burghelle-Vernet, the Head of the Internal Market, Air Transport Agreements and Multilateral Relations Unit of the Mobility and Transport Directorate of the European Commission, is now visiting Tunisia for talks on the technical requirements needed for Open Skies, as well as EU foreign policy in the air transport field and co-operation between Tunisia and the EU in transport field in general.

Among Tunisian representatives is Mr Harouni, who has recently gone on record as saying that Tunisair's structural reforms have already begun to bear fruit with results for Q1 of 2013 showing a rise of 4.4% in passenger throughput compared to last year. Additionally, the reduction of the bloated workforce by 1'700 is expected to improve the carrier's long term viability. Consequently, he said, the carrier had nothing to fear from an open playing field akin to that of Morocco who themselves signed an Open Skies agreement with the EU in 2004.

Kamel Ben Milad, the Director General of Tunisia's Civil Aviation Authority also said that with Tunisia's transport sector undergoing full reform, a fair trading strategy would need to be put in place  in order to facilitate the signing of an open skies agreement as soon as possible. Other conditions that would need to be implemented include a final agreement on the safety nets needed to cushion local industry from the impact of competition. This is related to the implementation of a range of accompanying measures, with the aim of renewing the aerospace industry, on one hand, and harmonizing airport infrastructure and air navigation on the other.

However, the country may yet face stiff resistance from Tunisair's unions who have, in the past, strongly objected to any form of Open Skies agreement. The unions staged massive protests over the signing of an Open Skies agreement with Qatar last year, arguing that 5th Freedom rights granted to Qatar Airways (QR) would unfairly advantage the Qatari carrier at Tunisair's expense thereby contributing to the deterioration of its financial situation.

Further negotiations between the same parties on free trade will begin in early July.