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British Airways: Ec Fares Policy

Volume 492: debated on Thursday 28 January 1988

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My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government what is the present position of the discussions taking place between the European Commission and British Airways concerning Article 86 of the Treaty of Rome; and whether they will indicate their attitude in this matter, as put forward during discussions with European Community Transport Ministers.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Transport
(Lord Brabazon of Tara)

My Lords, I understand that discussions between officials of the European Commission and British Airways are continuing. This is a matter between the Commission and the airline, and it would not be helpful for me to comment while discussions are in progress. Neither I nor my right honourable friend have discussed this matter with European Transport Ministers.

My Lords, does the Minister realise that this is a matter of considerable importance both to airlines and passengers alike? Does he additionally realise that it seems not only strange but regrettable that the Government have not even discussed the problem with their European counterparts? Can the Minister enlighten the House on the following point? Is it correct that the Council of Ministers cannot discuss suggestions or proposals on this whole matter until the European Commission itself puts down an item on the agenda of the Council of Ministers?

My Lords, the Commission has distinct and specific powers and responsibilities under the Treaty of Rome, and the competition provisions of the aviation package and its inquiries are still at an early stage. However, if the Commission takes the matter further, we would expect it to take proper account of the views of member states and their competent authorities; for instance, through the advisory committee set up under the package.

My Lords, that is not what I asked the Minister. I asked him a very simple, straightforward question and it seems very difficult to get a simple, straightforward answer. Does he recall that I asked him whether it was not possible for the Council of Ministers to discuss this whole affair until the European Commission itself put down such an item for discussion on the agenda of the Council of Ministers?

My Lords, it is a matter for the Commission and not for the Council at the moment. If the Commission takes the matter further and puts the matter before the Council of Ministers, no doubt it will be discussed. The Council has provided in the competition provisions of the package for the procedures to be followed. I do not think that further action could be expected of the Council at this stage.

My Lords, I think this is insufferable. The Minister will not answer the question I have put to him. Does he recall that on 8th December he gave me a long Written Answer of several paragraphs which I could paraphrase in one word: yes? It was this particular point that I raised. May I ask him for the third time whether it is correct that the Council of Ministers cannot discuss the matter about which I have asked him today until the European Commission itself puts down such an item on the agenda of the Council of Ministers?

My Lords, this is primarily a matter for the Commission in any case, and not one for the Council of Transport Ministers. As to whether the Council of Transport Ministers wishes to discuss this, I would think not at the moment.

My Lords, is not Article 86 one of the few articles in the Treaty of Rome which has supranational effects? Is there not a director-general in the Commission who is responsible for competition policy and responsible to an individual commissioner? If the European Commission decides that any merger attracts its attention and investigates it under Article 86, is it not entitled straight away, without any further reference to the Council of Ministers, to take it to the High Court?

My Lords, that is correct. It is indeed an investigation under Article 86 by the competition commissioner which is at present being looked at. At the moment it is a matter for the Commission.

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that to ask Ministers to strike a position in the course of negotiations could jeopardise the negotiations themselves?

My Lords, it is not a question for Ministers at the moment. It is a question between the Commission and the airline concerned. It is not a matter for Ministers. I cannot answer for the Commission in this House.

My Lords, I am sorry to rise again but does the Minister realise that constant evasion only means that my question is correct and that the. Minister does not wish to say yes? Whether the competition commissioner or the transport commissioner is responsible, is it not essential that before the Council of Ministers can discuss anything it has to be based on an item put down on its agenda by the European Commission?

My Lords, I have tried to explain that this is a matter for the Commission, not for the Council of Ministers.