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Wednesday, 27 September 2017

Bombardier Bombarded: A Lesson for Brexiteers

The Canadian aircraft manufacturer, Bombardier, has suffered a huge blow at the hands of the US regulatory system: a tariff of 220% has been imposed on imports of its new aircraft to the USA: one of whose airlines has ordered 75 of the planes, with a further order pending. Both the British and Canadian governments have made grants to the company, to maintain its technological capabilities and to protect employment in Canada and in Northern Ireland; and Boeing, the US aircraft builder has cried 'foul' even though the new planes will not compete directly with any of their products.

Boeing has massive contracts with the US military and with NASA. The prices set on such products are necessarily sufficient to support the research and development that is necessary to design and build the craft and devices: thus giving Boeing a comfortable profit base that exempts the firm from any need openly to seek subsidies for its civil aviation sections. Bombardier - the former Short Brothers in Northern Ireland - now has little demand from the British defence sector, which is so strapped for funds that the national defences have been excessively depleted and the country only manages to present figures showing that it meets the NATO target of 2% of GNP on defence by cooking the books rather brazenly. It is absolutely essential that a country purporting to be any sort of power invests hugely in defence technologies, which are expensive. The more innovative the defences are, the more they are likely to cost: and the more effective they are likely to be. It is a quaint paradox that some of Corbyn's 'loony-left' colleagues are more likely to see this than are Tory Brexiteers, because they can see the linkage between economic development and military might in Russia, China and the USA.

On the same day as the US decision was taken on the new tariff, the British train building section of Bombardier also received very bad news. A long-planned consortium arrangement with Siemens to build a new generation of trains for the world market was abandoned by the German firm in favour of an alliance with the French firm, Alstom. This has, allegedly, been engineered at the behest of President Macron, whose government is reviewing all major sectors of the economy with a view to ensuring that the French presence in each, within a European context, is the best that it can be from a chauvinistic French viewpoint. Brexit Britain can expect many more similar snubs from the Macron regime.

Both these stories teach the lesson that an isolated Britain depending on free trade agreements under WTO rules cannot succeed. WTO rules do not prevent the US paying Boeing top prices for research of incalculable value. WTO rules will not stop President Macron's chauvinistic plans from coming into effect. Cash tariffs are trivial obstacles to trade, compared with regulations on product standards and safety that can be manipulated in to assist favoured products, and the 'needs of national defence'. The naive optimism of 'hard' Brexiteers is a form of idiocy. Unless the UK remains within the European Economic Area, with all its common standards and definitions, British firms and their products will be picked off [by being deemed not to meet standards] one by one, as their European competitors develop their capacity to supply the equivalent of their former exports.

British airlines and train companies are under no pressure to buy British: so the demise of the bombardier plant in Belfast and Derby is threatened. British jobs can be lost, and with them generations of accumulated knowledge: and the dimmer Tories won't even weep into their whiskies. Of course, there are intelligent people of conservative cast of mind: but few of them are content with the present deeply-riven government, and even fewer are comfortable about the prospect of a 'hard Brexit'. Despite his Marxist blinkers, John McDonnell shows some awareness of these issues. As the parties stand at the end of the Labour Conference today, Labour has the best of the bad arguments. I do not expect the Tories to gain any ground when they meet in conference next week.

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