Row over French submarine deal exposes coalition fault lines

The Walrus-class submarines are due to be replaced. Photo: Defence ministry

Junior defence minister Christoph van der Maat has told MPs he will not accept any delay to an order for four new submarines from the French shipbuilder Naval.

MPs will vote next week on a motion by the orthodox Christian party SGP to postpone the decision until the new government takes office, to pursue other options.

Van der Maat warned in a debate this week that he would “never carry out” such a motion, arguing that a delay damage the Netherlands’ defensive capability as two of its four 40-year-old Walrus-class submarines need to be replaced.

The proposed deal is the first serious test of the right-wing parties that are in the final stages of forming a coalition government. The liberal VVD and centre-right NSC are in favour of the deal, but the largest party, the far-right PVV, is pressing Van der Maat to reconsider.

The largest opposition party, GroenLinks-PvdA, says it may also vote for the motion as a way of forcing the four parties to commit to a decision.

The PVV has questioned the decision to award the €5.8 billion contract to a French company rather than an alternative bid by a consortium led by Saab that includes the Zeeland-based Damen shipyards.

“For the PVV Dutch interests come first,” PVV MP Joeri Pool told a defence committee meeting on Monday. “Our national security, our maritime industry, and our seafaring pride. That’s what we stand for.”

National security

Van der Maat warned the PVV that voting for the motion to postpone the order would have consequences for national security.

“As the biggest party in the Netherlands you face an important decision,” he said. “The alternative is a delay that will put the continuity of our submarine service in doubt.”

But the deal could also be scuppered if GroenLinks-PvdA votes against it because of the PVV’s wavering. Spokesman Jimme Nordkamp said it would be “very difficult” to back such a large deal because of the “fundamental differences in insight between the parties responsible for running the country”.

Political games

Nordkamp was criticised by other opposition members such as D66’s Hanneke van der Werf, who accused him of playing “political games with our national security”.

But Nordkamp was following the line of party leader Frans Timmermans, who says he will not step to save the coalition if the PVV splits from its partners.

Wilders has said that the four parties are only bound by collective responsibility on the policies spelled out in the coalition deal, while everything else is subject to a free vote.

Timmermans argues that defence issues such as support for Ukraine and the submarine deal are too important to be left to a free vote, especially given the PVV’s recent voting record on Ukraine. The party’s senators voted against a €2 million loan guarantee package in February.

“Bad sign”

Van der Maat said any further delay would give off a “very bad sign” about the Netherlands’ commitment to national and international defence.

“This is about our submarine service, which parliament has spent the last two and a half years telling me and the cabinet to get a move on with. We can’t have a capability gap where we end up with no submarines for a while.”

He said he was more hopeful after Monday’s debate that the PVV could be persuaded to back the deal. “I had the feeling, because I repeatedly tried to address their concerns with substance rather than rumours, that they’re prepared to see things as they are.

“I hope they will join the large majority who agree we’ve been diligent, made a good decision and need to make haste with building these submarines.”

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