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Tuesday, 4 December, 2001, 16:43 GMT
Europe shuns defence shake-up show
Defence Partnerships conference
Defence Partnerships: Big UK presence, senior delegates from France were missed
by BBC News Online's Stefan Armbruster from Paris

European governments have failed to turned up to Europe's biggest defence privatisation conference, where the British government was hoping to sell its flagship programme.

The Defence Partnerships conference was well attended, with more than 200, mainly British, defence and services contractors, and defence ministry officials, filling conference halls in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower in Paris.

But they looked like grooms left standing at the altar, waiting for the blushing brides of Europe with their defence contract dowries.

The most notable truant was the French government, which many of the attendees said they considered their de facto host.

Senior representatives from Germany, Spain and Italy administrations were also notably absent.

Where are they?

"I'm very disappointed," said Matthieu de Varax, partner at Simmons and Simmons, one of the conference sponsors.

"I cannot understand why the French government is not interested, I know they are looking at it."

The sentiment was echoed by British services company Serco, one of the other major sponsors.

"We were expecting to be rubbing shoulders with ministry of defence officials from around Europe, but they just haven't showed up," said a PFI project director from Serco.

Even the 33% discount for military and government officials failed to attract officials from many countries, although Sweden, Holland and Finland were well represented.

National control

The reason why the companies were left clutching a bouquet of privatisation lilies could be because European countries are much more reluctant to surrender control of their armed forces to foreign corporations.

"We let our number two in the Ministry of Defence's procurement agency work for a French company and show them around what we've got on offer," said conference speaker Bruce George, chairman of the UK House of Commons defence select committee, referring to John Howe who is on secondment to France defence giant Thales.

"We've seen no reciprocation and no interest from the French to let British business do the same in their armed forces."

British contractors were left to engage in collective head scratching about where their clients were and to discuss the same old chestnuts of why PFIs go wrong.

"Maybe we'll have better luck next time," speculated Mr de Varax.

How defence has become the latest target of privatisation initiatives


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