A gamble worth taking

The razzmatazz of the official unveiling of the Airbus A380 was a great opportunity for Tony Blair and other European leaders to bask in the reflected glory of a great engineering achievement.

Rather like the launch of the great cruise liners or battleships of old, the new airliner is a reminder of how major engineering and technological achievements still have considerable symbolic power. It is hard to imagine Blair, Chirac and the rest turning up for the opening of the world’s biggest call centre.

It is also interesting to see how quickly the A380 has been appropriated by the political classes as a new weapon in the policy debate over the direction of Europe.

To those most firmly attached to pan-Europeanism, the aircraft has become nothing less than a giant new stick to wave at the Americans. The A380, their argument goes, proves that Europe can match or better anything the US can produce if its governments and businesses get around the table and work together.

The French seem particularly keen on the creation of European ‘champions’ across a range of sectors. If we can do it in aerospace with the A380, why not in the automotive sector or defence technology?

Those who see such talk as evidence of creeping Brussels-led interference in the free market are equally keen to pour a large bucket of cold water on the euphoria surrounding the A380. The plane would never have left the drawing board without unhealthy levels of financial underwriting by various European governments, they point out. Go down that road, they say, and white elephant projects will be springing up all over Europe, fed on a diet of taxpayers’ euros. Welcome back to the 1970s.

The latter argument has some force, but taken to its logical conclusion would surely ensure that Europe never gives birth to another momentous project. It would become a mere spectator on the sidelines hoping it will be asked to chip in and help the Americans or Chinese.

Co-operation between European governments and companies was certainly essential to ensure that the A380 was designed and built. No single company, or indeed country, would have taken such a huge commercial risk alone. For a risk the A380 was, and is.

That it is an engineering triumph is beyond question. Whether it will be judged as a success will be decided in the cut-throat market of the global aviation industry against a determined foe in the US’s Boeing. If the orders dry up or aviation slips badly into recession, listen to the cries of ‘we told you so’ and sighs of relief from across the Atlantic.

Let’s hope that doesn’t happen, because, leaving the politics to one side, the A380 project has breathed new life into the UK’s civil aerospace industry.

There are businesses trading profitably that would certainly not exist without Europe’s big gamble, and for that alone we should give thanks.