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Airbus may cut more defense jobs in German export row

Tom Enders, chief executive officer of Airbus Group, attends the Airbus Group 2013 annual results presentation in Toulouse in this February 26, 2014. REUTERS/Regis Duvignau

BERLIN: Germany faces defense industry job cuts beyond those already planned and could even see factories closed or moved abroad if the government insists on toughening restrictions on arms exports, the head of Airbus Group told Reuters.

The company’s defense and space division already plans to shed some 2,000 industrial jobs in Germany.

“I am concerned about the increasingly restrictive arms export policy of Germany. This might trigger additional layoffs in Germany, beyond our current reduction plans,” Chief Executive Tom Enders said.

“Eventually, we might have to consider closing down entire sites or product lines or moving them outside of Germany.”

The comments, in an exclusive interview at this week’s Berlin Airshow, raise the stakes in a larger battle with the German government over the future of the defense industry.

Earlier this week, German Economy Minister Sigmar Gabriel vowed a much more cautious approach to licensing arms exports, signaling a change in policy from the previous coalition government under which sales rose.

Airbus Group is in the midst of cutting a total of 5,800 jobs, mainly in its defense and space division.

Enders said it was too early to say how many extra job cuts might be involved since the government has been in power less than six months.

“This is a very recent development,” he said. “It just appears that this government is even more restrictive than previous ones, and Germany is already known in Europe and beyond for a very restrictive export policy.”

Arms exports have been a sensitive issue in Germany since the end of the World War II, but have come under even more scrutiny in recent years because of the increased sums and because a greater number of arms are heading to non-European Union or NATO partners and potentially unstable regions.

The Economy Ministry said most of the deals so far this year were approved by Chancellor Angela Merkel’s 2009-13 coalition government with the Free Democrat Liberals.

The ministry is now run by the Social Democrats who criticized arms sales whilst in opposition. They formed a coalition with Merkel’s conservatives in late 2013.

Earlier this month, German media reported Gabriel wanted to block two deals to sell arms to Qatar and Saudi Arabia worth billions of euros.

But Enders said deals waiting for approval included “nonlethal sensors” in which Airbus hoped to act as a lower-tier supplier to contractors in another NATO-member country.

In 2012, Airbus Group acquired optronics maker Carl Zeiss Optronics, which employs about 780 people.

The latest standoff is seen by the industry as a test for Germany’s ability to compete for defense deals in the future.

However, any move to close or move factories from Germany could also provide the first test of recent Airbus governance changes that give Berlin a veto over some of the country’s sensitive technology. Germany owns 11 percent of Airbus Group.

Enders, who has clashed in the past with Berlin over defense issues, said the combination of weak spending and the threat to exports could damage small and large businesses alike.

“Our job is not to make politics. If the government wants a very restrictive armament policy, we will not be able to prevent them from doing so,” Enders said.

“Our job is to show very clearly and up-front what the consequences of that will be. We cannot have a substantial defense industry and no exports and no [domestic] orders and believe this is something you could thrive on.”

The German defense and space industry employs 105,000 people and reported combined 2013 revenues of 30.6 billion euros.

Airbus Group, Europe’s largest aerospace company, employs 144,000 people including about 12,000 in what used to be its Cassidian defense branch in Germany.

Enders, a former German defense ministry planner who backs more European integration on foreign and security policy, said the best solution would be a common policy on arms exports.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on May 24, 2014, on page 5.

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