Days of silence have descended over the potentially controversial current plan by Bulgaria to go ahead with soliciting offers to buy fighter jets without going through a public procurement process; but depending how the plan proceeds, there could be sonic booms in domestic politics and at European level.
The saga of Bulgaria’s stated intention to buy new fighter jets to succeed its ageing Soviet-era stock and to meet Nato obligations has endured for a number of years and outlasted a number of defence and other cabinet ministers.
Defence Minister Anyu Angelov began signalling in the spring of 2012 that there was a plan to go ahead with the purchase of second-hand US-made F16s and that he would seek the approval of the Cabinet to begin negotiating without calling a tender on the purchase, the price of which is estimated to run towards $400 million.
If this route is followed, it is one certain to result in misgivings at European level, while at domestic level, it would be bold government – one very certain of decisive victory in the early summer 2013 national parliamentary elections – that would embark not only on big-ticket spending on military equipment while being parsimonious on pensions, while for that matter violating the fiscal discipline which is one of the centre-right government’s proudest plank of its platform.
Certainty about European-level misgivings may be based on the fact of letters sent to Bulgaria, the Czech Republic and Romania by European Commissioner Michel Barnier in May 2012.
The letter quotes the 2009 Defence Procurement Directive, which acknowledges that the purchase of combat aircraft is a sovereign national decision, but adds that since combat aircraft are military equipment in the meaning of this directive, EU countries have to abide by the rules when such aircraft are bought.
This means having to publish a contract notice in the EU’s official journal and open the procurement procedure to all potential suppliers established the EU. The letter added that it was true that the directive also includes certain exclusions, such as contracts awarded by one government to another, but these exclusions should be interpreted in a restrictive way and not used to circumvent the directive.
Barnier said that the EC would see it as a government circumventing the directive if it directly awarded another government a contract to buy a new product for which competition with the participation of EU suppliers would be possible. Full respect for the new directive was crucial for the establishment of the European defence equipment market “to which we are all fully committed,” Barnier said.
However, the EC cannot really stop or penalise a country if it does circumvent the directive. The risk is more a political one, of Sofia annoying Brussels at a time when in the broader context of other issues of interest to the EC, it cannot afford to do so.
The current government may expect, if the polls are correct and nothing significantly damaging happens before the elections in 2013, to take the largest share of seats and continue in power. However, its lead is hardly decisive and on the basis of the same polls, the current ruling party would have to be vigilant against the risk of the combined power of a large and united opposition coalition.
Prime Minister Boiko Borissov’s centre-right GERB party government already faces a number of political risks, including those that could arise in the short term if its mishandles the January 27 nuclear power referendum.
On bread-and-butter issues, it could have some fillip from the increase in the minimum salary as of January 1 2013, the pensions increase in April and the possibility that the vote will be held before people have on their minds the utility and other price increases that would take effect in July.
From all of this arises the risk of embarking on huge spending before the election, certainly a hard sell in a country where unemployment is rising, incomes are low and the cost of living has been rising steadily. Going the route of a second-hand purchase, for instance of used F16s from Portugal, also would raise the question of how long the lifespan of these aircraft would be before taxpayers in future would be asked to come up with more money for further purchases. Again, against a background of prominent figures in the current government having spoken out publicly against binding future generations with debt, the apparent backtrack would be a difficult sell, especially during an election campaign.
All of this could be why Defence Minister Angelov has not been able to navigate a route as smooth as it first may have appeared in the spring.
The proposal about direct negotiations on purchases of second-hand aircraft has not, at this writing, been presented to the Cabinet and it is unclear to those outside the inner circles of power as to when it will be. Asked by Bulgarian journalists when the proposal would go to the Cabinet, he said that there were “technical issues” to resolve and the Cabinet decision would be taken “when the time comes”.
Whether there was political support would become clear when the Cabinet made its decision, he said.
There was another interesting aspect the message at the same time. Talk of negotiations on second-hand aircraft implied that Sweden’s Gripen, which has offered new aircraft and which has been the other flying horse in the marathon race, was out. As reported on November 1 by Bulgarian-language Mediapool, Angelov held that there was an option for new fighters, but these could only be Gripen fighters because these were within Bulgaria’s affordability range. The possibility of buying Gripen was still there, according to Angelov, and would be examined on an equal basis with the deals on second-hand aircraft being offered.
Going by indications including statements by Angelov himself, informal talks have been conducted on coming up with a price for second-hand fighters that would be acceptable to the Bulgarian defence establishment’s perceptions of affordability, though whether those perceptions would be shared by the Finance Ministry, the rest of the Cabinet or the Bulgarian electorate remains to be seen. The estimate that has been doing the rounds for some months now, of $400 million for eight aircraft, may even appear on the low side – but, again, gives no indication of the longer-term impact of having to replace, one day, aged and outmoded military aircraft, a topic that should be familiar enough to post-Warsaw Pact Bulgaria. Further, it is notable that Angelov, speaking on October 26, said that the aim was to acquire eight fighters, “but this could also be nine depending on the price” – a statement that hints at informal talks already and that quite probably at least one country has come up with a buy-eight-get-one-free deal, or something along those lines.
Talks have been held with Portugal, the Netherlands, the United States and Germany, with Belgium, Italy and Norway also named as possible sellers to Bulgaria of used F16s or, in the case of Italy, also possibly used Eurofighters.
At the same time, Angelov has insisted that Bulgarian and European legislation will be adhered to strictly.
Should the process advance a stage through Cabinet approval, the pencilled-in plan is for a proposal to be put to Parliament in February, not long before an election which already was sure to be a bread-and-butter issue vote, but now too could become a guns-or-butter poll as well.
(Main photo, of an F16: US Air Force)