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Airbus Dispute May Takeover EU Meeting

Meeting of EU defense ministers may be overshadowed by efforts to forge a deal on the future of the troubled Airbus A400M strategic aircraft, officials said.

BRUSSELS (AP) -- A meeting of EU defense ministers to review assistance to Haiti, operations in the Balkans and naval anti-piracy missions may be overshadowed by efforts to forge a deal on the future of the troubled Airbus A400M strategic aircraft, officials said Tuesday.

EU spokeswoman Cristina Gallach said it would be "excellent" if an agreement is reached on the A400M on the sidelines of the two-day meeting opening Wednesday in Palma de Mallorca, Spain.

The 27 EU ministers are due to tackle issues such as the EU's military role in humanitarian missions such as the Haiti earthquake; current EU operations in Bosnia, where the bloc has about 2,000 troops; the maritime anti-piracy mission off the Somali coastline; and a plan to form and train a new Somali government army.

Defense ministers from neighboring North African states -- Algeria, Morrocco, Tunisia and Mauretania -- also will attend, Gallach said in an interview.

Over the past decade, the EU has sought to develop its own military capability independent of NATO, although most EU nations also are part of the alliance that includes the United States, Canada and Turkey.

The A400M transport plane -- which performed its much-delayed maiden flight in December -- is not on the conference agenda. But officials said the ministers may hold parallel talks to hammer out a long-awaited agreement on financing the largest collaborative military project in European history, which is behind schedule and over budget.

"This is not strictly an EU program, it's a program of a group of member states," Gallach said. "But everybody is looking forward to a possible agreement on the project's financial challenges."

The aerospace company EADS, which owns Airbus, has been haggling with the seven customers -- Belgium, Britain, France, Germany, Luxembourg, Spain and Turkey -- that ordered 180 of the turboprop transports regarding who should pay for the costly overruns that have put the program almost four years behind schedule.

The euro20 billion ($26.9 billion) project is over budget by about euro5.2 billion ($7 billion). The seven nations have agreed to put up euro2 billion more, plus another euro1.5 billion in loan guarantees. But EADS says it is not enough to proceed with the project.

On Monday, French Defense Minister Herve Morin said the governments will not provide any additional funds to help salvage the project.

European nations have long been hampered by the shortfall in strategic military airlift capabilities. In the 1990s, they struggled to deploy forces to nearby troublespots in Bosnia and Kosovo without using U.S. Air Force transports such as the Boeing C-17 Globemaster III.

Airbus claims the A400M, which uses the largest turboprop engines ever fitted to a Western aircraft, will be able to carry twice the load of another competitor, the Lockheed Hercules, and that its fuel-efficient power plants will make it cheaper to operate than the jet-powered C-17.

Oddly, Afghanistan will not be on the agenda of the talks because of a feud over Cyprus between Greece, a member of NATO and the EU, and Turkey, a NATO member but not part of the EU.

Frustrated in its attempts to join the EU and angered by European support for Cyprus, Ankara has blocked formal relations between the military alliance and the EU.

"The problem is that the whole Cypriot conflict and the Greek-Turkish feud have been fully imported into the EU-NATO relationship," said a European Defense Agency official who asked not to be identified because of the sensitivity of the issue.

Cyprus was divided into a Greek Cypriot south and a breakaway Turkish Cypriot north in 1974, when Turkey invaded after a short-lived coup by supporters of union with Greece. The Greek Cypriot government is internationally recognized. The Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus is recognized only by Turkey, which keeps 35,000 troops there.

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