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EXCLUSIVE-U.S. offers tariff truce if Airbus repays billions in aid -sources

* Offer targets loans to Airbus from European governments

* WTO has said both sides at fault in long-running dispute

* EU to seek final approval to impose $4 bln in tariffs

* U.S. has started imposing tariffs on $7.5 bln of EU goods (Adds background and quote from former U.S. official)

By Tim Hepher, Andrea Shalal and Philip Blenkinsop

PARIS/WASHINGTON/BRUSSELS, Oct 15 (Reuters) - The United States has offered to settle a long-running aircraft subsidy dispute with the European Union and remove tariffs on wine, whisky and other products if Airbus repays billions of dollars in aid to European governments, several sources close to the matter told Reuters

The offer was made by U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) Robert Lighthizer days before the World Trade Organization’s (WTO) release on Tuesday of a report authorising Brussels to slap counter-tariffs on U.S goods over subsidies to planemaker Boeing, the sources said.

Lighthizer’s proposal, however, is unlikely to win support from the EU, which appears set to ask the WTO at an Oct. 26 meeting to endorse $4 billion in EU tariffs on U.S. goods. The imposition of $7.5 billion of U.S. tariffs over Airbus subsidies has already started to hit European goods.

The USTR’s office and the European Commission, the EU executive, did not respond immediately to requests for comment.

The loans stand at the centre of a 16-year-old dispute that has bedevilled trade relations and spread to industries from luxury goods to agriculture as the two sides seek to punish aircraft subsidies with tariffs.

WTO RULING

The WTO has ruled that European government loans to Airbus were unfairly subsidised through low interest rates while Boeing received unfair support from tax breaks. Both sides claim to have remedied past flaws and to be in line with WTO rules now.

Under the U.S. offer, interest rates on past loans to support Airbus development programmes would be reset to a level that assumed that only as few as half of the projects would succeed, two of the sources said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

That would assume a higher risk than Airbus partner nations - Britain, France, Germany and Spain - have traditionally priced into the loans and reflects a speculative type of investment.

Such repricing could cost Airbus up to $10 billion, seen as unacceptable to the EU at a time when aircraft manufacturers have been seeking funds to survive the coronavirus crisis.

One European source called the proposal “insulting” and said it could accelerate the tariff war. A U.S. source, meanwhile, said Lighthizer was “serious” about getting Airbus to repay aid.

Details of the bid emerged after the United States said on Tuesday that it was waiting for an EU response to an unspecified offer in the dispute. EU officials have said they, too, made an offer this year without receiving a U.S. response.

JOSTLING FOR POSITION

Analysts say both sides are trying to strengthen their positions ahead of any future negotiations. Both sides have urged negotiations while accusing the other of refusing to engage seriously.

Repaying old subsidies is a heated topic of debate in the discussions because WTO remedies often apply to the future.

The United States argues that this would fail to address ongoing harm to Boeing caused by past loans that Airbus can still use to develop jets and offer lower prices than otherwise possible.

Jamieson Greer, former chief of staff to Lighthizer and now a partner with law firm King & Spaulding, said that any deal must involve some form of subsidy payback by Airbus.

“(Lighthizer) has been very public on the basic principle that ... some form of restitution is an important part of any resolution,” Greer said.

European sources say that Boeing would also have to hand back billions if the same philosophy were applied to the U.S. planemaker.

Currently Airbus repays government loans only when its sales exceed a certain threshold, while loans for weak-selling planes such as the A380 superjumbo can be waived partly or fully.

Airbus says the disputed system favours taxpayers because loan repayments on successful jets such as the A320 far outweigh amounts written off on jets that fail to reach sales targets.

Additional reporting by Kate Duguid in New York Editing by David Goodman

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