Monday, November 29, 2004

Defence co-operation – French style

Hailed as the supreme example of European co-operation, the troubled Eurofighter project now seems to be revealing crack in the façade of European solidarity which bodes ill for future projects, to say nothing of EU commission ambitions for closer defence integration.

At the heart of this rift – as ever – are the illustrious French, who have been banned from taking part in export sales promotions for this aircraft. The reason, to put it bluntly, is that no one on the Eurofighter sales team trusts them not to use the information gained in sales negotiations to push their own rival, the Rafale fighter.

That is the situation revealed by The Business, yesterday, which reports that the procurement ministers of the Eurofighter partner countries – UK, Spain, German and Italy – have put the block on the French because they believe they are undermining Eurofighter’s export potential by putting their national interests - and products - first.

Although France is not a partner in the Eurofighter project, the situation arises because it is involved in the programme through EADS, one of the industry partners making the aircraft, as well the Rafale. The ban means that only German and British nationals associated with Franco-German EADS, Berlin's partner, can work on export sales.

Rumours in the industry of French perfidy have, in fact, been circulating for some time and this is by no means the first instance of this type of behaviour. An aircraft engineer working on the Anglo-French Concorde project once told us bitterly how French engineers had used the opportunity of this co-operative venture to copy advanced British technology and apply it to their own products in order to compete with British equipment.

The current unpleasantness has exacerbated tensions between the UK and France, the latter having been pushing a merger between EADS and the defence contractor Thales, which is a major contractor for a number of UK defence contracts, not least the Royal Navy’s two aircraft carriers. The British government believes Paris is trying to engineer French dominance of the European defence industry, something London fiercely opposes.

All of this is an inauspicious start to the EU’s grand project of getting a European Defence Procurement Agency under way, with the ambition of creating a Europe-wide defence complex to rival the power of the US defence giants. The fly in the ointment, it seems is that, in the eyes of Paris – as always – “European” means French.

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