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Fighter jets given parliamentary all-clear

The Swiss people are likely to have the last word on the Gripen. Keystone

The Swiss parliament has approved the controversial purchase of fighter jets from Swedish aerospace company Saab. However the deal will likely still be subject to a public referendum.

This content was published on September 18, 2013 - 09:54
swissinfo.ch and agencies

Both houses of parliament have now signed off on the plans. On Wednesday, the Senate adopted proposals previously agreed by the House of Representatives: an armaments programme to buy the 22 Gripen planes, a bill providing the financial base for the CHF3.1 billion ($3.3 billion) purchase and the release of the so-called brake on spending – required for any amount above CHF20 million.

  

The full parliamentary approval comes after five years of heated discussions, with setbacks and opposition over costs.

But the Swiss people are set to have the last word on the hotly debated issue.

At least two parliamentary committees – one from the left and one from the centre – have announced they would petition for a referendum if the purchase was cleared by parliament. It would only be able to contest how it is financed. A referendum could take place in May.

Defence Minister Ueli Maurer has praised the qualities of the Swedish jet and justified the expense.

A lot of money

"The Gripen is a first-class airplane of the latest generation,” Maurer told the House of Representatives last week. “It costs a lot of money, but an investment over 30 years is within the army’s budget.”

Swedish ambassador Per Thöresson and president of the Council of Europe Jean-Claude Mignon were in Bern at the time to follow the House of Representatives debate.

The centre-left Social Democrats, the Green Party and the centre-right Liberal Green Party had opposed the acquisition. They demanded Switzerland first clarify the army’s future tasks before discussing the purchase of new jets.

A paper plane

Opponents also criticised that Switzerland was buying just a plane on paper because the Gripen E model only exists as a design. Another concern was that the purchase was tied to the success of the Swedish economy and Saab’s uncertain future.

Not only pacifist groups and left-wing political parties have been giving Maurer a hard time. A parliamentary committee and lobby groups such as air force pilots have criticised the evaluation procedure or the choice of the Gripen over two other competitors, the Eurofighter and the Rafale.  

Advocates of the Gripen purchase, on the other hand, were convinced that Switzerland needed fighter planes to replace antiquated Tiger jets to secure its air space.

“No sovereign state would do without an air force,” said pilot Thomas Hurter from the rightwing Swiss People’s Party.

Maurer, also from the People’s Party, reiterated that the Swiss Air Force was an integral part of the armed forces. “You cannot just remove one part, or you’ll end up with a car with three wheels.”

According to a survey by Isopublic, about two-thirds of Swiss are against the purchase, the polling institute said in early September.

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