Fighter jet puts pressure on Dutch coalition
The purchase of new fighter jets for the Dutch army has caused a rift between the Labour party and the government coalition it belongs to. Some say the discord is a greater challenge to the Dutch cabinet than the economic crisis.
On Wednesday evening Labour parliamentarian Angelien Eijsink put an end to speculations about where Labour lawmakers stand on the purchase of two prototype US-built Joint Strike Fighters (JSF). "We cannot approve the purchase of JSF test planes," Eijsink said.
Her words made clear that Labour is effectively withdrawing its support for an important part of the coalition agreement that formed the basis of the Balkenende government. The 2007 coalition agreement between the Christian Democrats, Labour and ChristenUnie said the cabinet has to take a final decision about the JSF no later than 2010. Without Labour's approval there is no majority in parliament for the cabinet's plan.
Even if a decision on whether to spend 6.2 billion euros to buy 85 JSF (or F-35) fighters for the Dutch airforce does not have to be taken until 2010, the government does have to decide this year whether to buy the two prototypes.
The Labour Party says that while it wants the Netherlands to stay involved in the development of the fighter - because of the employment and research opportunities it offers Dutch companies - it also believes that agreeing to buy the prototypes will commit the country to further purchases. Lawmakers are opposed to spending such a huge sum of money on a fighter jet in these troubled economic times. They also feel the plane is "not the best machine for the best price" and do not want to "sign a blank check".
Deputy defence minister Jack de Vries (Christian Democrat) defended the plan to buy the two prototypes. He said it is a logical result of earlier agreements that Dutch pilots could only be trained on the JSF if the Netherlands bought two of the jets. But he added that buying two planes now won't mean the Netherlands can't abandon the JSF in favour of another jet to replace the existing F-16 later.
A compromise seems unlikely without loss of face for either the Christian Democrats or Labour. Eijsink suggested that the Netherlands could rent the test planes instead of buying them, while the ChristenUnie wants to purchase only one jet. Those options, however, do not seem realistic.
The Netherlands has so far invested more than 1 billion euros in the development of the American fighter plane. But since no fixed price has been set for the JSF it is unclear if the current budget of 6.2 billion euros will suffice for the planned purchase of 85 planes. In 2010, the Dutch government has to decide on the purchase of a first batch of probably 55 planes.
ChristianUnie faction leader Arie Slob thinks the discord is not insurmountable. "We have not deliberated over the economic crisis for three weeks only to slip over an airplane."