Britain isolated over EFA project

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The Independent Online
THE EUROPEAN Fighter Aircraft project was dealt two further blows yesterday as Germany's Defence Minister, Volker Ruhe, dashed British hopes that it would continue with the four-nation pounds 22bn project, and Italy indicated it was getting cold feet.

Mr Ruhe ruled out a compromise involving a smaller order or using the EFA airframe and engines to produce a cheaper version of its own. Italy also cast doubt on that possibility.

The German decision, taken against the background of the financial burden of unification, was delivered during a hard-hitting meeting with Malcolm Rifkind, Secretary of State for Defence.

Mr Ruhe, the architect of Chancellor Helmut Kohl's decision to quit the project, reiterated Germany's wish for a lighter, cheaper and less sophisticated aircraft, saying he could not spend all his money on an aircraft dating from the heart of the Cold War.

Passing a military guard of honour as he entered the MoD, Mr Ruhe said: 'I am glad it was not a firing squad.' He later faced anger as he explained the political background in a meeting with the Tory backbench defence committee. He said the German constitution forbade the country from operating outside the Nato area, making such a sophisticated aircraft unnecessary. He added that the project was strongly opposed by the Social Democrats.

Sir Geoffrey Johnson Smith, the committee chairman, said members were dismayed at Mr Ruhe's emphasis on domestic politics. The Gulf war had shown Nato itself would have to be prepared to think of threats outside the traditional Nato area.

The aircraft suffered a further blow when, at a meeting with John Major in Munich, the new Italian Prime Minister, Guiliano Amato, told him that the project was too costly and incompatible with his government's efforts to curb Italy's large budget deficit. British government sources admitted that this left them feeling increasingly isolated in defending the project. The Italians had also expressed scepticism that a cheaper version of the aircraft could be built.

'Things are going wrong,' a British official said privately. 'The Italians are not as committed to the search for ways to have the existing project but cheaper.'

Cost-cutting without affecting the aircraft's capabilities will be the focus of future discussions between the two countries and Spain, the fourth partner.

Letters, page 18

Is is worth it? page 19

Kohl haunted, page 23

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