Experience shows that letting markets, rather than politics, dictate economic activity creates more value for consumers and frees up capital that ultimately leads to more jobs.
This is why I have actively supported free trade and other agreements that remove government barriers and entanglements to international commerce throughout my career.
For open markets to work as intended, however, all parties need to be operating on the same, level playing field. One of the biggest challenges advocates of free trade must confront in the 21st century is the growing number of countries using nation-state resources – often in violation of trade deals – to give their state-owned companies huge advantages.
In these cases, international competition does not create the greater efficiencies, innovation, and new demand for services that leads to a growing economy for all. Instead, since the unsubsidized competition cannot possibly compete, it leads to a hemorrhaging of jobs and wealth in the countries that do not cheat, as well as fewer options for consumers.
The emergence of this highly aggressive form of state-sponsored capitalism provides a test for the United States and for advocates of unencumbered international economic activity: Are we willing to stand up for American workers? Are we willing to enforce our trade deals?
The United States faces a perfect test case when it comes to our Open Skies agreements with the United Arab Emirates and Qatar.
Open Skies agreements allow airlines, rather than governments, to make decisions about international routes, pricing, and capacity. The goal is to allow market demand rather than politics to drive these decisions, which saves customers money.
The United States has more than 100 of these agreements, and they have been a huge success. Estimates show that Open Skies agreements save passengers approximately $4 billion per year on U.S.-international routes.
However, for these agreements to be mutually beneficial, the airlines in all participating countries must be operating under the same rules. In the case of the United Arab Emirates and Qatar, this is clearly not the case.
A report submitted to the U.S. government by a coalition of the three major U.S. airlines and several airline worker unions shows that between 2004 and 2014, the governments of the UAE and Qatar have provided over $40 billion in subsidies and benefits to their state-owned airlines: Emirates, Etihad Airways, and Qatar Airways. Updated analysis by the coalition shows that since 2014, the total subsidy has passed $50 billion.
U.S. airlines have competed against state-owned airlines for decades, but these massive subsidies are unprecedented. The Gulf carriers are using this almost limitless government funding to open new routes without considering consumer demand, and thanks to the subsidies they receive, can afford to hemorrhage money until their unsubsidized competitors have no choice but to end their service. The coalition’s analysis shows that every route closure leads to a net loss of 1,500 U.S. jobs.
Why would the Gulf governments do this? Because the two nations’ larger economic development strategies depend on making themselves major airline hubs. Therefore, they are willing to let their state-owned airlines lose money to serve their broader, long-term goals.
This is a direct violation of our Open Skies agreements, which require parties to ensure “fair and equal” opportunities to compete. As the report shows, the Gulf carriers are operating hundreds of millions of dollars in the red every year, while at the same time rapidly expanding routes and capacity. They are not creating new demand for routes. They are only driving out the competition who cannot afford to operate at a loss. The Gulf carriers couldn’t do this without the more than $50 billion in subsidies they have received over the past decade. This is the opposite of fair competition.
One might be tempted to dismiss the findings of this study because it was funded by the United States’ three major legacy carriers, but other developed nations such as Canada, Japan, and China – as well as the EU – have come to the same conclusion and have already taken steps to equalize the economic playing field with the Gulf carriers. It is clearly time for the United States to follow suit.
Our Open Skies agreements allow the State Department to request immediate consultations with partner countries to address grievances. We should do so immediately. If we are refused, the Trump administration should announce it is freezing the addition of new routes from the Gulf carriers to the United States until UAE and Qatar come to the table.
Those opposed to enforcing our Open Skies agreements with Qatar and UAE argue that doing so would invite scrutiny of alleged subsidies that U.S. carriers receive, and undermine Open Skies agreements with other countries.
This is a smokescreen. There is no comparison between the tens of billions of dollars in subsidies that the Gulf carriers receive with the small advantages U.S. carriers have, such as relatively liberal bankruptcy laws and the partial reimbursements they received from the government after it decided to ground flights in response to the 9/11 attacks.
If free and fair trade is to continue to expand in the 21st century, those of us who advocate robust international commerce free of government interference must be willing to stand up for U.S. workers when other countries are not playing by the rules.
In short, supporting free trade requires enforcing free trade agreements. All Americans should demand that the U.S. government acts to enforce its Open Skies agreement with UAE and Qatar.
Newt Gingrich is former Republican speaker of the U.S. House and a former candidate for president.
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