Romania on collision course with EU as approves plan to buy F-16 jets

By bne IntelliNews September 28, 2012

bne -

In a decision that is sure to infuriate the EU, Romania's Supreme Defence Council (CSAT, in Romanian initials) has for the second time approved a plan to buy second-hand F-16 fighter jets in a direct deal rather than hold an open tender for the procurement.

Defence Minister Corneliu Dobritoiu was quoted as saying by on Thursday, September 27 that the Romanian government would pay for up to 12 F-16s made by Lockheed Martin between now and 2016 from Portugal in a deal he had said could be worth up to $600m. "We have found money in the budget to acquire these F-16 jets," he was quoted as saying. "We start paying for them next year and until 2016 when we get them."

The announcement comes after bne revealed earlier this month that the European Commission had sent letters to the governments of Romania, Bulgaria and the Czech Republic to highlight EU laws concerning procurement, after it became concerned about possible moves by those member states to conclude major defence deals to buy supersonic fighter jets without holding an open tender.

EU Commissioner for Internal Market and Services Michel Barnier, who oversees public procurement in the 27-member bloc, wrote the letter, dated May 15, 2012, to the defence ministers of Bulgaria, Romania, Slovakia and the Czech Republic to remind them about EU directives concerning tenders for public procurement and the need for transparency in such procurement. "The decision to acquire combat aircraft is a sovereign decision of your country. However, since combat aircraft are military equipment in the meaning of Directive 2009/81/EC, Member States have to abide to the rules of this Directive when they purchase such aircraft," Barnier wrote in the letter, a copy of which was obtained by bne. "This means in particular that they have to publish a contract notice in the Official Journal of the European Union and open the procurement procedure must be open to all potential suppliers in the EU."

A spokesman told bne that the Commission had received "positive" replies from Bulgaria and the Czech Republic, but pointedly omitted to mention Romania, whose government has just emerged from a different battle with Brussels over its attempted (but failed) impeachment of President Traian Basescu. EU Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso said those events in Romanian politics had "shaken our trust" in the country's democratic values. Another battle appears inevitable.

This is the second time in two years that Romania has tried to push through a deal for F-16s to replace its ageing, Soviet-made MiG Lancerjets without a tender. In March 2010, the Romanian president's office announced that after a meeting of the Supreme Defence Council - an unelected advisory board that has no executive powers but is very influential by dint of its appointment by the country's president - it had been decided to send a proposal to parliament to acquire 24 used F-16 fighters from the US Air Force. President Basescu in subsequent interviews said it was purely an economic decision, yet that didn't stand up to much scrutiny once Saab had released its proposal showing it would offer the same number of planes, 24 new Gripen C/D multirole jets, for the same price of around EUR1bn.

The announcement triggered huge criticism from European groups Eurofighter and Saab Gripen, which also want to sell fighter jets to EU countries like Romania, which stressed the need for a tender under EU rules. Following heated debates in parliament and the media, the decision was shelved a few months later, with the president citing a lack of funds to buy the jets.

Defence Minister Dobritoiu said on September 24 that the government believes it is adhering to the letter of the EU law in buying these jets through an intergovernmental agreement; Brussels begs to differ.

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