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Comment: Enough now children

If it weren't so serious, the seemingly interminable World Trade Organisation dispute between Airbus and Boeing might be funny. Since 2004, the world airliner market duopolists have been engaged in proxy war through their respective governments, brawling over subsidies which, each side insists, are illegal under WTO rules and doing it grave damage.

Last week, the WTO ruled on Airbus/Europe's complaint against the USA/Boeing. Pending translation - and, in all likelihood, appeals - the WTO's actual declaration will remain confidential for some time, so all the outside world knows is how the two parties want to interpret the ruling. In this instance, the Americans have been very naughty and the Europeans are vindicated. Or, perhaps - if you prefer the American version - the naughty Europeans have been slapped down and must mend their ways.

 We don't care who started it

Go back six months or so, when the WTO ruled on the US/Boeing case against Europe/Airbus, and we heard, well, the same thing.

The whole spectacle smacks of two bickering siblings, each trying to convince their parents that it was the other one who started it. In real life, the parents would send them both to bed with clear instructions that it didn't matter who did what and there wasn't to be another word about it. Sadly, the WTO lacks such powers, and so must listen patiently to an endless game of claim and counterclaim.

Neither side will ever win. The WTO can resolve disputes over outlandish protectionism, but the reality in this squabble is that both sides are doing what governments have been doing to support strategic, technology-intensive industries for a century. The methods are reasonable and are not going to be abolished. In any case, tens of thousands of European jobs depend on Boeing. Airbus buys parts made by umpteen numbers of Americans. Whose subsidies are damaging who?

Meanwhile, China is pumping subsidy into its bid to build an airliner industry. But nobody will take China to the WTO over unfair support, because there's no hope of amassing evidence to make a case.

The way to manage the rise of China - and Brazil, Canada, Russia and India - to the top league of aerospace nations is in the political arena, not the courts. But as long as Europe/Airbus and US/Boeing insist on splitting legal hairs, they aren't addressing the real threat to their hard-won aerospace dominance. And that's not funny.

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