BRUSSELS --- Belgium’s restricted Cabinet, known as “Kern,” decided on Friday to keep - at least temporarily - the French Rafale combat aircraft in the running for the replacement of the F-16 fighter-bombers, while continuing in parallel the tender procedure to which the United States and the United Kingdom have responded, respectively offering the F-35 Lightning II stealth fighter and the Eurofighter Typhoon.
The government’s principal ministers agreed to ask for a new legal review of the French proposal for a strategic partnership based on the Rafale, which French Armed Forces Minister Florence Parly “still hopes" to sell to Belgium despite the hostility displayed to this offer by the [Dutch-speaking] N-VA party (of Defense Minister Steven Vandeput—Ed.)
According to several sources, the government wants to learn more about the French offer, made in early September on the eve of the deadline for the submission of bids for the tender process.
Minister of Defense Steven Vandeput (N-VA) previously said only the US and UK government agencies responded in accordance with the rules set out in the call for tender ("Request for Government Proposal", RfGP) by the deadline of September 7.
But Paris, without responding to the RfGP, created a surprise by proposing, in a three-page letter sent by Florence Parly to her Belgian counterpart, an "in-depth and structuring partnership" based on the Rafale, and involving Belgium in the development of the new-generation combat aircraft envisaged by France and Germany by 2040 as part of a revival of European defense.
New legal review
The Kern on Friday decided to ask for new legal reviews of the French proposal – which is politically difficult to reject out of hand - while Mr Vandeput, on the basis two legal opinions sought in-house and the Stibbe law firm, had said Wednesday that France had legally ruled itself out of play.
The procedure initiated under the invitation to tender for the purchase of 34 new combat aircraft for an initial amount of approximately EUR 3.6 billion will continue in parallel with the review, two sources said.
There is a debate on "all offers", Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs Didier Reynders (MR) confirmed to RTBF on his arrival at the Council of Ministers.
"We are going to examine the legal aspects and see the contacts that are possible with each of the partners, including France. This is a sufficiently important area for the Belgian strategy for the government to discuss and still have contacts with the different partners, including France," he added.
"There is no urgency, we don’t have to decide this in a few days," he said. "It concerns European defense policy, it is worthwhile to look at what is being proposed, but it must be able to match market conditions…..If the legal obstacles are too great, then we will stay with the RfGP process," he however warned.
In Paris, Florence Parly, the armed forces minister, assured she still "had good hopes" of convincing Belgium to choose the Rafale, which its manufacturer, Dassault Aviation, presents as an "omnirole" combat aircraft.