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Shhh. They're Negotiating.


That deep silence you hear may well be the sound of European governments and the U.S. hunkering down in hopes that the political furor over the KC-X tanker bid will calm a bit so they can do some serious negotiating.

A European source told me today that it looks as if EADS, as well as the French and British governments, hopes the atmosphere can be calmed in part so both sides can learn what is really at stake and who is willing to do what. Call it the search for clarity.

"The feeling is no one wants to fool anyone else," this source said. Part of the reason for everyone's caution -- beyond the money at stake -- is that the Obama administration may well have been "surprised by the strong European reaction" to Northrop Grumman's decision to pull out of the tanker bid. Very few -- if any -- Europeans saw Northrop's move as a business decision. Combine the ascension of Rep. Norm Dicks -- Mr. Boeing -- to the chairmanship of the House Appropriations defense subcommittee with the rejigger of the RFP to exclude best value as a key factor and Europe concluded the fix was in for Boeing, a company that did not have a European partner.

As the European source put it, there is "no political gain from public debate" right now, so no one is talking.

But the ferment continues behind the scenes, especially with French President Nicolas Sarkozy due for dinner at the White House next week.

The French paper Les Echos had a story about a joint letter about the tanker to President Obama signed by the four leaders of the countries most closely tied to EADS -- Sarkozy, Britain's Gordon Brown, Germany's Angela Merkel and Spain's Luis Zapatero. That letter was sent in December. "This letter has still not received a reply, the Americans have assured us that they would give a reply very soon," an aide to Sarkozy said in a statement quoted by various media outlets.

So watch for quiet ferment during Sarkozy's visit. His office has already promised that the dapper president plans to raise the issue during his White House dinner. Then comes the Easter break, during which nothing is likely to happen in Europe. The most likely time for some major news to wash through the weary Washingtonians watching the tanker competition is the third week of April.

Meanwhile, please don't disturb the parents while they try to figure out how to handle all this.

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