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A Red Card for Airbus

Referees often make costly mistakes, as we’ve seen in the World Cup. But the World Trade Organization (WTO), which umpires international commerce, got a big decision right yesterday. It handed the United States a thumping victory in a long-standing, high-stakes dispute with Europe over aircraft subsidies.

At issue were some $20 billion and below-market lending rates — known as “launch aid” – that several European governments had provided to aircraft manufacturer Airbus. The WTO deemed launch aid to be an illegal subsidy, upholding a September 2009 interim ruling.

The largess of European taxpayers was critical to Airbus’ development of several of the companies’ main commercial jets. Without such favorable financial assistance, the WTO’s ruling said, it “would not have been possible for Airbus to have launched all of these models, as originally designed and at the times it did.” In other words, without government subsidies, Airbus would have never have become the world’s number 2 player in the lucrative market for commercial airframes. U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk has said that the subsidies have done “great harm” to competing U.S. manufacturing firms, especially number 1 Boeing.

The ruling is welcome, not just for Boeing and American manufacturers but because it boosts the credibility of the rules-based global trading system, which lately has shown signs of fraying at the edges. If the rules aren’t enforced, trade will become a zero-sum game as countries resort to mercantilist and protectionist strategies to protect their economic interests. That in turn could bring global prosperity crashing down. The WTO’s decision is important too because it serves as a warning to other countries — China, Brazil, and Russia — who might or want to subsidize their own aircraft producers.

In an ironic twist, even the unions were on board in support of freer trade in the Airbus case. As Will Marshall and I wrote back in September (when the interim ruling was announced), “Although organized labor often has taken a skeptical if not hostile stance toward international trade, Boeing’s unions strongly backed the U.S. government’s decision to file the case in 2004. The unions realized that Boeing competitiveness was suffering and that only fair and enforceable trade rules would ensure it.”

The WTO has no mechanism for enforcing its rulings,  but rather provides the legal justification for the United States  to even the playing field. It would be best, of course, if Airbus and its European patrons bowed to the WTO’s judgment and end the illegal subsidies. It would be a tragic irony if Europe were to embrace an economic unilateralism even as President Obama has put the United States back on a course of multilateral cooperation. But if Europe won’t play by the rules, the United States has three options.

First, our government could levy tariffs on Airbus imports to the United States. Second, it could spread the pain by taxing other European imports. And third, Washington could subsidize aircraft production by U.S. firms.

The first is far and away the best choice — taxing Airbus limits the trade dispute to an isolated sector of the market, and avoids a broader trade war over other products. Government subsidies for U.S. firms are the least attractive option, because other companies in other sectors may lobby for money based on that precedent, further distorting trade.

I don’t expect Europe to just roll over and play dead. Though the EU hasn’t officially decided whether or not to appeal the ruling, and there is the possibility that some governments will just ignore the ruling and continue to subsidize production. That’s a big gamble of course, because it would just provoke more stringent U.S. tariffs on imports.

But for now, the good news is that the worlds’ trade ump is on the job, sending off those who break the rules.

Photo credit: Caribb’s Photostream


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