Another day in the Brexit saga, and another round of soundbite diplomacy, with the Taoiseach warning that Irish airspace could be closed to overflying British flights if European Union fishing fleets are kept out of UK waters, to which the hardline Leavers holler blackmail. It is not, clearly, blackmail, but simply a pointer to what could happen if Britain stumbles, if not hurtles, out of the EU without a comprehensive trade settlement with the remaining 27 member states. Yet Mr Varadkar knows all too well that a UK response to such a prohibition could be a tit-for-tat ban on eastbound overflights by Irish carriers. The last thing our continent needs is an internal trade war like the one that’s opened between the United States and the EU.
The Taoiseach is right, however, to turn the spotlight on to the aviation problem, since it is one of the most complicated items on the London-Brussels negotiations agenda, and one that has the potential for inflicting serious damage not only on Britain’s economy but also on those of most of the EU’s 27 states. It is impossible to over-estimate the significance, economic value and scope of the UK’s aviation network; it is Europe’s largest, and the world’s third largest. The British government would not — we assume — be determined to press ahead with a third Heathrow runway, as politically unpopular as that prospect is in London’s outer suburbs, if it suspected that their capital’s status as a major airline hub would be markedly reduced as the inevitable consequence of a stupidly hard Brexit. On the other side of the table, the airlines and governments of EU states have a vested interest in maintaining access to the UK market, both in landing rights and in ensuring that British tourists get to where they want to go in Europe.
Nobody is saying that an agreement, which ought to be in place when the two-year Brexit transition period expires in December 2020, will be reached effortlessly. The EU’s Single European Sky structure is an intensely complex web of regulations covering air traffic management, security, safety standards, airline ownership and consumer protection, much of which paradoxically was designed by British governments.
There is as yet no consensus in the airline industry as to the way forward. At IAG, which owns British Airways, Aer Lingus and Iberia, chief executive Willie Walsh is sanguine. “I am completely relaxed,” he says. “There will be a comprehensive Open Skies agreement. Anybody who doesn’t believe that is living in cloud-cuckoo land.”
Ryanair’s Michael O’Leary, however, sees a “real crisis”. But a way forward must be found, and it will be if the UK
government is wise enough to realise that it must accept compromises in the interests of trade, and if the EU 27 accept the reality of Britain’s withdrawal.
What can be overlooked in the exchange of warnings across the Irish Sea is the fact that the European common aviation area, with 36 countries including Norway and Iceland, extends beyond the frontiers of the EU, which has also struck what it describes as a far-reaching aviation deal with Tunisia. If that is possible, an agreement with Britain ought to be too.