Romania stokes EU fight as it announces plan to buy F-16s

By bne IntelliNews June 20, 2013

bne -

Romania's leftist government has approved a controversial plan to buy second-hand F-16 fighter jets from Portugal, as it bids to bring its air force up to Nato standards. The announcement flies in the face of the EU's demands to CEE member states that they must hold open tenders for defence procurement contracts.

The defence ministry said on June 19 that it will buy 12 jets from Portugal in a deal that will see it pay a little over €600m, including maintenance, in installments through to 2017. This decision goes against the wishes of the European Commission, which has been pushing EU rules at Romania - and other CEE countries - that state they must hold transparent tenders for such defence procurement. That would allow other manufacturers, such as the EU's Saab Gripen, to compete for the deals.

bne revealed in September that the EU executive had sent letters to the governments of Romania, Bulgaria and the Czech Republic highlighting the legislation. Brussels' move was the latest in a long fight with all three member states over plans to possibly conclude major deals to buy supersonic fighter jets without such competition. However, Bucharest is still clearly intent on extending what is now a three-year battle to try to avoid the legislation. That stubborn stance only goes to raise suspicion of high-level corruption connected to the deal.

The affair began in March 2010, when the Romanian president's office announced that it had been decided to send a proposal to parliament to acquire 24 used F-16 fighters from the US Air Force. That statement followed a meeting of the country's Supreme Defence Council (CSAT) - an unelected advisory board that has no executive powers, but is very influential by dint of its direct appointment by the president.

In subsequent interviews, President Traian Basescu said it was purely an economic decision, yet that didn't appear to stand up to much scrutiny. Saab Gripen quickly released its proposal, claiming it would offer 24 brand-new multi-role jets, for the same price of around €1bn that the used planes made by its US competitor were set to cost.

Saab Gripen was joined at the time by Eurofighter in stressing the need for a transparent tender under EU rules. Following heated debates in the Romanian parliament and the media, the decision was shelved a few months later, with the president citing a lack of funds. However, in the subsequent years, Romanian officials have continued to indicate that the plan to buy the F-16s remained alive.

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