Commentary: What Clinton did not say

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Amid the renewed transatlantic sabre-rattling over subsidies for the European-built Airbus, it is important to remember what President Bill Clinton has not said.

He has not threatened to block Airbus sales into the US or impose tariffs on them. Nor has he said that the current level of subsidy given by the four partner governments of Britain, France, Germany and Spain is too high, although some are drawing this inference from the President's public pronouncements.

What he has said - to the workforce at Boeing's Seattle plant - is that the 28,000 lay-offs announced there last week would not have been necessary had it not been for the dollars 26bn the US had let Europe plough into Airbus over the years.

What he has also said is that the US would seek 'a tough new discipline' on Airbus subsidies while closely monitoring the agreement brokered between the US and the European Community last year limiting all forms of support, direct and indirect, for commercial aircraft production.

What does this all add up to? Mr Clinton's comments in Seattle are precisely those one would expect, especially from a president fast gaining a reputation for telling any given group of constituents exactly what they want to hear. But they hardly amount to a declaration of war.

The suspicion in some quarters of Washington, London and Toulouse is that Mr Clinton may be softening up US and European public opinion, not to attack Airbus but to emulate it by providing direct subvention to the rival American aircraft manufacturers Boeing and McDonnell Douglas.

If the US deficit could bear the charge, that would be a novel way to soothe the current tensions. The danger is that it could escalate into a subsidies race between the Europeans and the Americans.