Tunisia could sign an open skies agreement with the EU as early as next year, opening up its airspace to competition from European airlines and pre-empting a wider aviation deal between Europe and the Middle East.

The European Commission (EC) is to enter formal discussions with Tunis for an open skies agreement in September.

Officials at the national aviation regulator, the Tunisian Civil Aviation & Airports Authority, and national carrier Tunisair expect a deal to be agreed by late 2009, and are anticipating that it will give a huge boost to the country’s growing tourism industry.

“Tunisia wishes to increase its tourist traffic from Europe, and we are trying to establish the country as a hub between Europe and Africa,” says one official at the Tunisian Civil Aviation & Airports Authority. “With open skies we can bring in much more traffic from Europe, particularly the low-cost carriers.”

As part of any eventual deal, Tunis will need to harmonise its air traffic management system with the EU, introduce new
safety and security standards, and submit to full co-operation with standards set by the Inter-national Civil Aviation Organ-isation (ICAO).

The move comes as the EC prepares to launch a feasibility study into harmonising air traffic management with members of the Euro-Mediterranean Aviation Group, which includes Algeria, Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, the Palestinian Authority, Syria, Tunisia and Turkey.

The study will last a year, with the EC then preparing individual plans for each country to bring their aviation practices up to EU standards. Europe is seeking to establish bilateral agreements with each country, with a view to eventually extending the European Single Sky to the eastern and southern Mediterranean.

“The process will be voluntary, but we will offer assistance in the legal instruments for greater liberalisation and regulatory convergence with the EU,” says one official at the EC’s Directorate General for Energy & Transport. “There are countries well placed for this. Negotiations with Lebanon and Jordan are relatively advanced already and we expect Egypt to join next year, while Syria is much further away from opening up.”

The discussions with Tunisia and the Euro-Mediterranean Aviation Group follow an open skies deal agreed with Morocco in late 2006. EC officials say Tunisia has the fundamentals in place to harmonise practices with Europe relatively easily, as Morocco did.

“The agreement with Morocco was ambitious,” says the EC official. “It set out a comprehensive approach to European transport law and air traffic management, and a total approach to market access. That is the example Tunisia wants to follow and the country is well positioned for it. We would expect to sign an agreement with Tunisia within two years.”

“Competition will be tougher if airlines such as Ryanair come here, but we have to face that competition,” says one Tunisair official.