The eruption of the Eyjafjallajokull volcano has created transport chaos, but the EU can lead the way in finding a trans-national solution to a cross-border crisis.
A volcanic eruption and the resulting cloud of abrasive ash is an Act of Nature. As thousands upon thousands of miserable travellers are now experiencing, the Act of Nature that goes under the name Eyjafjallajokull has turned into a crisis. The interruption of so much air traffic for such a long time is unprecedented since the Second World War, and it is inflicting untold damage on already weak economies - starting with airlines, of course, but stretching far beyond. Acts of Nature are not what the European Union was created to manage, but as Eyjafjallajokull continues to show how vulnerable the continent can be to the whims of Mother Nature, the EU can lead the way in finding a trans-national solution to a cross-border crisis.
The EU was built on that most manmade of crises - war. In the early 1950s, the integration of coal and steel production was also a choice of integration in order to stamp out the possibility of inter-state violence. Then Europe got into the business of fostering prosperity under conditions of peace. The EU began to focus on prosaic areas of cooperation as with the creation of a Common Agricultural Policy in the late 1950s. Reforms from the 1960s to the mid-1980s were primarily aimed at ensuring the continent's prosperity through the creation of a Europe-wide marketplace.
Integration in 1990s took on a different form by focusing attention on electricity provision, food supplies and water, while expanding the EU's role in workplace safety, social equality and environmental accidents. The debate of the last few years about energy security - egged on by Middle East turmoil and Russia's manipulation of gas supplies - showed a desire for the EU to play a role in protecting ordinary citizens. The Lisbon Treaty, in turn, was drafted on the assumption that Europe needed to be better at permanently coordinating its actions when the bloc was confronted by sudden crises.
So far, the Eyjafjallajokull crisis is turning into a European mess. National airspaces are closing and opening again - some of them only for high altitude over-flights. Test flights seem to happen on a purely national basis. Assessment of the situation seems to be based on predictive computer models fed with weather data - largely from Britain. Some countries are tempted to follow the economic priority of restarting flights as soon as possible, while others are obeying showing greater caution. Yet they essentially share the same airspace and the IATA - currently headed by an Italian president - has understandably begun criticising Europe's lack of coordination.
It is hard not to sympathise with the plight of European institutions involved. They are not going to be able at short notice to launch equipment that was never put under their control, such as weather balloons that can probe the higher atmosphere. Nor do they coordinate military flights. In the very short term, though, the crisis is demonstrating the limits of intergovernmental Europe, when the issues go beyond top-level initiatives and extend into difficult technical choices and mobilisation of existing means.
This should not be a Eurosceptic demonstration that Europe is a mess. On the contrary, it should serve notice that in some areas, more Europe is needed, and that intergovernmental cooperation simply does not answer all questions among 27 nations. Seldom have common institutions proven so necessary.
Some action has now been taken by EU leaders. European transport ministers, who held a teleconference on 19th April because of the travel restrictions, agreed to create a smaller no-fly zone, around one-third of the size of the current one. European air-space will now be divided into three zones: a no-fly zone in skies most contaminated by ash; a second zone where flights can operate with safety checks, subject to decisions by national authorities; and a third, business-as-usual zone. Work has also begun on the economic consequences of the crisis with EC President Jose Manuel Barosso asking for a report on the impact of the crisis and Siim Kallas, EC Vice-President in charge of Transport, leading discussions.
But a number of additional steps should be considered. First the EU must ensure that any review of the dangers of flying while the volcano is active or any mitigating actions - like protecting engines - are recognised across the EU. There is no point having one rule in Germany, but another in the Netherlands. It may also be useful to create an information-sharing hub in the EU's Situation Centre where all information about flights, airports, passengers and so on can be pooled for access by individual EU governments.
Then the European governments should examine how their assets - like navy ships - may be used to ferry stranded passengers home, and what options exist for quickly improving the capacity for road, rail and ship transport across the continent. Responsibility for passengers lies with airlines, but member-states must survey and enforce that airlines follow the rules. The EC should warn airlines (and member-states) that it intends to investigate practices once the crisis has receded to ensure that passenger rights were upheld and press EU governments to ensure that ferry and rail operators retain their normal pricing structures during the crisis. Post-crisis, it may be necessary to examine passenger rights once again.
A common EU discussion should also take place about any potential suspension of the state aid rules. What if the French government gives Air France money, but the British government does not support BA. And what about the private airlines like EasyJet? What should they expect if state-owned carriers are supported financially by EU governments?
There are few things as national as a country's airspace. But there are few things as ineffective as national responses to an essentially pan-European crisis. Years from now historians will probably not think back on the "Eyjafjallajokull Effect" to describe a stage in the process European integration. But the volcanic eruption should help nudge European governments to collaborate in a way that can benefit citizens and businesses.
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The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. This commentary, like all publications of the European Council on Foreign Relations, represents only the views of its authors.