European integration tends to advance first with squabbling then with fudge. Every country has its national interest to defend. Some politicians appreciate the need to create a strong bloc that can compete effectively with the United States, China and other powers. But that imperative typically plays second fiddle to more parochial concerns with the result that time is lost and suboptimal solutions are chosen.
Amidst the europhoria unleashed by the European Central Bank’s bond-buying plan, it is easy to miss the immense challenges posed by two complex dossiers that have just landed on leaders’ desks: the proposed EADS/BAE merger; and a planned single banking supervisor.
Look first at the plan to create a defence and aerospace giant to rival America’s Boeing. This has been under discussion since at least 1997 when the UK’s Tony Blair, France’s Jacques Chirac and Germany’s Helmut Kohl called on the industry to unify in the face of U.S. competition. London, Paris and Berlin are the key players in this game because they have the major assets.
Since 1997, progress has been patchy. Airbus, previously an awkward Franco-German-British consortium, was gradually turned into a proper company wholly owned by EADS – and EADS itself was created by the merger of France’s Aerospatiale and Germany’s Dasa. But Paris and Berlin insisted on a dysfunctional governance structure designed to balance their respective power rather than promote an effective organisation and EADS’ early years were bedevilled by scandal. What’s more, BAE opted to stay out of European integration, instead merging with Britain’s Marconi and going on a U.S. acquisition spree.
The cost of developing new products, such as fighter aeroplanes, is huge: Europe’s last major initiative in this area, the Eurofighter, was developed through another suboptimal consortium. If Europe can’t get its act together, BAE may eventually find itself swept into the arms of a large U.S. group and governments may ultimately be forced to buy American. Being dependent on even such a close ally should not be their first choice. So there is a strategic benefit in creating a streamlined European defence and aerospace group.