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24 Jun 2002 : Column 678

Single European Sky

7.48 pm

The Minister for Transport (Mr. John Spellar): I beg to move,

I welcome the opportunity to debate this important measure on the Floor of the House. The Government attach great importance to the establishment of the single European sky as it will benefit our aviation industry, the travelling public and the environment. We believe that single sky is a good project that offers the only realistic long-term solution to overcoming the difficulties in Europe's rather fragmented air traffic management system that has been coupled with an ever-increasing amount of air travel and air congestion. Single sky offers a much-needed fresh approach to smooth out the inconsistencies across Europe, to quicken the process of market liberalisation in the provision of air traffic services and to enhance airspace capacity while at the same time ensuring that air safety remains paramount. Those are the background factors.

The origins of single sky date from the heavy air traffic delays of the first half of 1999 that resulted from significant airspace closures. The June 1999 Transport Council responded by requesting the Commission to examine what was being done to minimise delays and to assess whether further initiatives were required. The Commission looked in some detail at the issue and presented to the December 1999 Transport Council its communication entitled "The Creation of the Single European Sky". The proposal subsequently cleared scrutiny in the Lords, but has yet to do so in the Commons.

Hon. Members may recall that as the development work on single sky was ongoing in the high-level group throughout 2000, it was not felt appropriate to debate single sky at that time. The United Kingdom Government participated fully in the high-level group and we enjoyed

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the consistent high standards of support and advice that we have come to expect from the Civil Aviation Authority. We also worked closely with National Air Traffic Services and the airlines in developing our policy on this proposal.

After the presentation of the high-level group report to the December 2000 Transport Council, there was a short hiatus while the issue of Gibraltar airport was resolved satisfactorily. Following the agreement between the respective Governments in the summer of 2001, the Commission released its two further communications on single sky last October which include four draft regulations. The proposals have not yet cleared scrutiny by either of the European Union Committees.

We recognise that single sky is a complex proposal. This is why, in conjunction with other European member states, we have sought to ensure that single sky offers significant benefits over those that we might realistically expect to arise from the work of the existing Eurocontrol organisation, even taking into account last week's decision by European member states authorising the European Community to sign the accession protocol to join Eurocontrol. The Government believe that that decision will be conducive to the success of single sky because it will help to secure the participation of Eurocontrol, with its wealth of technical expertise, in the single sky process.

Mr. Anthony Steen (Totnes): We are always interested to hear what the Minister has to say and this is no exception. However, although I am a member of the European Scrutiny Committee, I do not understand the difference between Eurocontrol, which is working on giving us a smoother ride throughout Europe, and the single sky initiative. What is the difference between a single sky and the other types of sky?

Mr. Spellar: Eurocontrol deals effectively with technical matters and harmonisation of procedures and technology. The feeling, especially since 1999, is that neighbouring countries in particular need to pull together so that there is greater harmonisation of aviation control. At the moment we have a lumpy and disjointed process that delays flights. That is also partly down to the investment by different countries at different times. As the inevitable increase in capacity does not apply everywhere, we are not able to achieve the best advantages from that.

I fully understand that there are problems with the policy. We need to work through them. The involvement of the Community will enable the process to work more smoothly. We all agree that the problem exists. Equally, however, we can recognise not so much the deficiencies but the limitations of Eurocontrol. The policy allows us to have an advanced capability that we can match up with the problems.

David Cairns (Greenock and Inverclyde): My right hon. Friend is right that the accession of the Community to Eurocontrol will push the process forward. Does he share the slight concern, however, that if the Community chooses to vote as one in Eurocontrol, there is a six-month cooling off period—it is not quite a power of veto—so that the non-EU members can have a good think about the agreement? Given that the problems are multiplying rapidly, does he think that that is too long?

Mr. Spellar: My hon. Friend may think that, but I should explain that it represents considerable progress.

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Unlike him in his previous occupation, I do not seek perfection; I merely try to ensure that things are more manageable.

The single sky proposal can be broken down into four parts: the establishment of the single sky committee; a new authorisation system for the provision of air navigation services within the Community; a mechanism to establish a single coherent Community airspace with common procedures; and a proposal to improve technical interoperability between Europe's air traffic service providers.

Mr. Steen: I have got the idea about the sky and the slots, but I am still not clear about defence. Air traffic control excludes defence aircraft. I hope the Minister excuses my ignorance, but how does that fit in with the new sky business? Will all the sky be controlled or will fighter aircraft be excluded?

Mr. Spellar: If the hon. Gentleman bears with me, I will come to that in a moment. He is right to identify the problem, which concerns a number of member states. We have made it clear that we need to resolve that by excluding military aviation so that we can make progress on the civil side. However, we also need to ensure that we get the right working relationship between civil and military airspace, as we have successfully done in the UK, so that we avoid some of the blockages that occur in the European system.

The framework regulation sets up an over-arching approach to European air traffic management through the establishment of the Single Sky Committee. The committee will be tasked to create a European airspace conceived and managed as a single continuum by the end of 2004, and for ensuring that the action programme to deliver single sky is achieved. The work of the committee is still being refined in the negotiations that are taking place and we are pushing to ensure that it will provide genuine improvements over what can be achieved under Eurocontrol's structure. We are hopeful that the new committee will succeed in that regard.

On the point raised by the hon. Member for Totnes (Mr. Steen), the Government made it clear during negotiations that they will not allow military operations to come within Community jurisdiction under the first pillar of the treaty of the European Union, a view shared by many member states. We believe that our position will be maintained, but I want to assure the House that we are not complacent. We will continue to scrutinise developments closely to ensure that the single sky proposals are not directly applicable to our military air traffic authorities and do not enable the Commission to take control of our military forces.

The proposal on air navigation services is still being developed.

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