Bonn denies threat to Eurofighter plan

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The Independent Online
Gemany yesterday reiterated its support for the Eurofighter project after speculation that it might pull out.

George Robertson, Secretary of State for Defence, yesterday met his German opposite number, Volker Ruhe, in Bonn, to stress that Britain wants Germany to commit itself to its part in building the jet. He stressed that Germany must make its mind up about starting production of the warplane, as time is running out if the first planes are to be delivered on time in 2001.

German budget constraints have left Mr Ruhe about 2bn (pounds 700m) German marks short of this year's entry fee. "Eurofighter is a very important project for Europe," he said yesterday, reassuring his British colleague that Bonn was "entirely behind the project".

If Germany were to pull out of the four-nation programme it will not kill it, but it will mean that the other three partners - Britain, Italy and Spain - will have to spend more, which will be difficult to justify. RAF and industry sources yesterday said whatever happened, it was "unthinkable" that the aircraft would not be built.

Mr Ruhe said Germany would decide on 11 July whether to order 180 of the new generation of jets.

Even if the German government approved the investment, it could still be thwarted in parliament. The opposition Social Democrats are bitterly divided over such a costly project when welfare spending is being cut to meet the Maastricht criteria.

However, the Social Democrat defence spokesman, Walter Kolbow, indicated yesterday that resistance to Eurofighter will crumble if the government finds savings elsewhere.

"I think it will go ahead," Mr Kolbow said. "They will have a solution to finance this aircraft."

The matter is gaining urgency, because until now private companies have had to carry the burden of development costs. Dasa, the German contractor, upped the stakes yesterday by threatening to pull out if Bonn continues to vacillate. The head of the Eurofighter consortium in Germany, Aloysius Rauen, said the delay was endangering workers at its production plants. "If the political decision on Eurofighter is further delayed, the industry must start phasing out production," he said.

In a parliamentary answer on Monday, Mr Robertson said 6,000 jobs already depend on Eurofighter in Britain, and some 14,000 will be employed at the peak of production. Britain plans to purchase 232 of the jets, at the cost of pounds 42bn.

Eurofighter is expected to provide between 250,000 and 300,000 jobs across Europe.

The first seven development models of the top-of-the range, multi-role aircraft are flying, and the RAF is expecting its first Eurofighters to be operational in 2002. "The only hold-up now is tooling up the factories to produce the things in large numbers," one senior RAF officer said.

Eurofighter appears exempt from the new Government's Defence Review announced last week, like the Trident nuclear deterrent. Although Mr Robertson said the review would look afresh at Britain's defence needs, the MoD said the Government was sticking to its pre-election pledge to buy 230 Eurofighters.