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Govt must agree an aviation relationship with the EU to protect industry standards and resources

Govt must agree an aviation relationship with the EU to protect industry standards and resources

The CAA will take over all regulatory authority and we will be able to set our own standards – which might well diverge from EASA standards, writes Lord Whitty.

4 min read

The European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) is vital in the enforcement of aviation standards across Europe, when the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) takes over, they must work constructively together.

When the UK left the EU on 31 January we instantly left not only the political and judicial structures of the European Union – the European Council, the Commission, the Parliament and the Court of Justice - but also nearly forty EU Executive Agencies dealing with day to day issues which relate to particular sectors of industry and society.

Those Agencies are varied in scope an importance. Some are primarily monitoring agencies but others are centrally important setters of standards and enforcers of those standards across Europe.

One of the most important of these agencies has been the European Aviation Safety Agency – EASA. EASA has been vital for testing and certificating the safety of aircraft, aircraft parts and aerospace manufacturing processes certification and of pilots and engineer’s safety and of course the enforcement of these vital standards across Europe.

Even for the duration of the Transition/Implementation Period, i.e. up to December 31st this year, the EU have made it clear that the UK are no longer members of the Boards of these agencies even though for that period we will have to be fully compliant with their rules and procedures.

Beyond the end of this year we will be a Third Country and outside the European Common Aviation Area.

This is of vital interest British located aerospace manufacturing and British based Airlines and of course to their workforces. Both sectors not only operate and sell across Europe but also have significant European ownership.

It has always been clear that the UK would have to negotiate post Brexit a new aviation relationship with Europe and specifically with EASA. However, there were a number of options. EASA recognises certain Third Countries such as Switzerland as observers within EASA; we could have sought Associate Membership; or formal joint arrangement between EASA and our Civil Aviation Authority.

Until recently it has been unclear which road the government would take.  

However, the Secretary of State for Transport Grant Shapps has now made it clear that there will be no halfway house. The CAA will take over all regulatory authority and we will be able to set our own standards – which might well diverge from EASA standards.

This complete break has raised considerable alarm amongst manufacturers, airlines and unions. If the CAA has to replicate the role of EASA for the UK but the standards remain the same there are issues of administrative duplication and cost. If the standards diverge there is the much bigger problem of aircraft, components and personnel being legal at one end of a European flight but not at the other. There are also issues of the resources and capabilities of the CAA in being able to take on these responsibilities in a purely UK structure of standards and enforcement. 

When Mrs May was in power she identified in 2018 and again in 2019 EASA as one of only three EU Agencies where we needed to continue to be involved with and to operate on a level playing field (the others incidentally were the Medicines and the Chemicals Agencies on which questions should also be asked.)  It is not clear what has changed except that the Johnson Government are taking an absolutist line at least publicly. The ostensible reason is that EASA decisions are ultimately appealable to the European Court of Justice. In practice this has hardly ever happened.

There is still hope for a more constructive approach. In the new negotiations on future relations between the UK and EU two of the early areas for seeking agreement proposed by the EU were for Aviation and for Aviation Safety. It is possible – despite Mr Shapps’ apparently negative stance – that there is a sensible agreement to be had on relations with EASA.

My QSD will seek to get the government to reassure the House and the Aviation sectors that a constructive arrangement is being sought. If that is not forthcoming there will be grave concern in all parts of the industry.


Lord Whitty is a Labour Peer in the House of Lords. 

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