JSF compromise averts government crisis
The Dutch government has narrowly avoided a coalition crisis over the replacement of its F-16 fighter planes. A compromise has been reached to finance one test plane but to postpone the decision to replace the entire fleet with the Joint Strike Fighter.
The Dutch government went into full crisis mode on Wednesday after the Labour party said it could not approve the purchase of two prototypes of the American Joint Strike Fighter (JSF). Buying the test planes is an important step in the development of the JSF, which could ultimately lead to the Netherlands purchasing 85 finished JSF or F-35 fighter planes to replace its ageing fleet of F-16's.
Without the support of Labour, there was no majority in parliament to approve the purchase of the test planes. The rift in the coalition was said to be a greater challenge to the Balkenende government than disagreements about how to combat the economic crisis.
On Thursday, a compromise was reached: the coalition parties agreed to finance - instead of buy - one - instead of two - prototype of the JSF. The final decision to buy 85 planes for - probably - 6.2 billion euros has been postponed until 2012, when the current cabinet will no longer be in power.
The replacement of the F-16s used by the Dutch army has been a hot political topic for years. In 2002, the Netherlands joined the development programme of the American Joint Strike Fighter F-35, but the decision whether these Lockheed Martin planes would eventually be the jet of choice for the Dutch air force would be made further down the development line.
Although it was Labour prime minister Wim Kok who signed on for the JSF in 2002, that same party has been waging a guerrilla war against the JSF ever since. In the run-up to the last election it pledged to withdraw from the expensive programme, but dropped that demand during powersharing negotiations with the Christian Democrats and the orthodox Christian ChristenUnie.
The three coalition partners agreed to make a final decision about the purchase in 2010. In order to stay involved in the test phase of the JSF, the Dutch had to let the Americans know whether it would buy two prototypes before May of this year. Christian Democrats party, with the support of the ChristenUnie, saw the purchase as inextricably linked to the intention to decide on the purchase of the JSF next year, whereas Labour parliamentarians felt that very link was problematic.
It was Labour faction leader Mariëtte Hamer who presented the compromise in parliament on Thursday. She said that "no irreversible decision" is being made now. But opposition parties say the Netherlands is "entering into an obligation"; they were astonished and disappointed by Labour's compromise.
Buying one JSF test plane would cost the Netherlands 113.2 million euros, but financing one would be around 100 million euros. Some opposition parties protested that the government is playing semantics; they say financing the test plane comes down to the same thing as buying it. Opting out of the test phase at a later stage will cost the Netherlands 20 million euros, according to insiders.
Mark Rutte of the right-wing liberal VVD - a fervent supporter of the JSF - called the decision a "monstrous compromise". Socialist Party leader Agnes Kant praised the stand taken by Labour parliamentarians, but said the party had now definitely lost all credibility. Populist party PVV suggested voters will punish Labour for its about-face.
But with the compromise, early elections have been averted and electoral repercusions won't follow any time soon.