Top-flight cooperation

Airbus Industrie
April 5, 1996

Airbus Industrie is one of the most important and successful examples of European technological cooperation. As a consortium linking the French, German and British aerospace industries, Airbus Industrie has held the line against American dominance of the civil airliner industry, fighting an increasingly bitter commercial and technological battle with the United States aerospace industry that has put it second only to Boeing in world markets.

David Thornton's book takes us through the complicated interplay between the three governments and the major national companies that established Airbus Industrie and launched the Airbus family. He reminds a British audience of how narrowly we escaped missing this particular bus, with perhaps fatal consequences for the UK aerospace industry. He analyses the opaque complexities of the Airbus Industrie structure, especially its eccentric but politically necessary accounting procedures and work-share systems. Finally he recounts simply and well the equally complicated story of the US-European aerospace trade dispute and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade settlement.

We also get a interesting assessment of what makes a successful government-supported industrial collaboration. In this respect, Airbus had the necessary combination of sufficient scale to motivate a major collective effort among hitherto competing countries, a narrow focus that helped to concentrate industrial and governmental minds, and clear separation between the political and industrial competencies. Thornton notes, however, that the "forces that converged in the creation and subsequent success of Airbus Industrie are unlikely to recur with great frequency". Nevertheless, the success of Airbus Industrie has often been cited as a potential model for other European industrial enterprises.

But Thornton's goal is more ambitious and interesting to the general reader. He views Airbus Industrie as an example of a "realist", neomercantilist international political economic strategy that the US may increasingly have to adopt in civil aerospace and similar "strategic" industries. Although he may overstate the relevance of the aerospace sector to the overall structure and process of international industrial activity, there are clearly areas of the international political economy where politics does tend to take precedence over economics. In his view, "the civil airframe industry and the place of Airbus Industrie within it show both firms and governments to be active agents in generating new possibilities for economic undertakings, indeed creating entire new markets and industries".

Thornton's book comes at a time when the success of Airbus Industrie in reconciling national interests through a complicated structural compromise is being pushed to its commercial limits. To prosper over the next 25 years, Airbus Industrie will have to evolve into a "real" transnational enterprise and this challenges fundamentally the underlying industrial policy interests, especially of the French and German partners. As a mixture of theory of international political economy and analysis of international business, this book deserves a wide readership.

Keith Hayward is professor of international relations, Staffordshire University.

Airbus Industrie: The Politics of an International Industrial Collaboration

Author - David Weldon Thornton
ISBN - 0 333 64319 4
Publisher - Macmillan
Price - £32.00
Pages - 242

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