Outside, shouting in

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Does it matter that the UK no longer has a financial stake in Airbus when future design work is allocated? It ought not...but it might

To tens of thousands of Britons, from premier Tony Blair to teenagers mulling an aerospace career, talk of Airbus moving composites work on aircraft wings to Germany or Spain from the UK - for decades the airframer's wing centre of excellence - is worrying.

Many see the suggestion as evidence that, without former 20% shareholder BAE Systems fighting Airbus UK's cause, the country has become a mere outsourcing operation, and with no political stakeholders cheerleading for Bristol and Broughton, the UK will struggle for all-important design and workshare contracts.

This is true to a point. From the formation of Airbus as an integrated company in 2001, BAE Systems ceased to own Airbus UK assets or employ its staff. As a private defence contractor, its shareholders' only interest in Airbus between then and last year's sale of its stake to EADS was that it continued to contribute to BAE's bottom line.

More importantly, Airbus - as chief executive Louis Gallois is at pains to point out - needs to act as a global business, not the sum of its national interest parts. After overtaking Boeing this decade, it has fallen behind. And, following the A380 debacle and delays in responding to the 787, the stakes are higher than ever. Airbus needs to become more efficient as a manufacturer and innovative as a designer if it is to regain leadership in the mid-size and future narrowbody sectors.

Airbus must allocate work to centres that will deliver the best product at the cheapest price - not to factories whose politicians or national stakeholders shout and threaten loudest.

This is good. Realising it was not going to be a shoo-in for new composites-based narrowbody wing work prompted the UK to - belatedly - throw resources at composites research and training. Spain read the runes and - from being known for small military transports - has become arguably Europe's leader in composites technology. From the point of view of Toulouse, this virtuous circle of internal oneupmanship can only make Airbus more competitive against its rival.

But is this all being naive? A few months ago, when Airbus job losses were mooted, French prime minister Dominique de Villepin declared to parliament that France (which has a 15% stake in EADS) would not let Airbus fail. The Madrid government, which owns 5.5% of the European aerospace company, is determined to bring more high-value work to the country. The German government may not own shares in EADS, but treats 22.5% shareholder DaimlerChrysler as its proxy. Now there are reports the UK too is willing to take the gloves off, with defence procurement minister Lord Drayson apparently telling unions last week the government would consider reviewing defence contracts with EADS if work left Bristol. The country may not have a representative in the boardroom when future Airbus workshare is being allocated. But politics still have a role within Airbus, and the UK's importance to EADS's European defence interests will mean its voice is clearly heard.