France proposes a long-term industrial and military partnership to Belgium

At the request of the Belgian Prime Minister, Charles Michel, a French delegation led by the Ministry of the Armed Forces, went to Brussels to detail your offerconcerning the replacement of Belgian F-16s.

After initially emphasizing the economic dimension, promising “5000 jobs” to the Belgian side, France is now articulating its offer around its strategic dimension. Thus, Paris is proposing to Brussels to become a full player in the Franco-German FCAS program, even though calls from London to join this program have been politely “postponed”. This is, of course, a very strong political gesture, which must have been previously negotiated with Berlin, showing the desire of the two capitals on each side of the Rhine to promote Defense Europe. 

Beyond this long-term strategic aspect, France is proposing an organic partnership between the air forces of the two countries, pooling training, maintenance and air defense efforts. More anecdotal, and yet symbolically important, Paris offers Belgium to acquire part of its Rafale to standard M, which can be embarked on the French nuclear aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle. This hypothesis had already been addressed by Christian Cambon, the president of the Senate Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, a few months ago.

Like the title “La Tribune”, it could well be that Belgium has the keys to the European Defense initiative. By inviting it to join the FCAS program alongside France and Germany, the French authorities are showing that they are ready to concede part of their own sovereignty in favor of Defense Europe. By giving its agreement, Berlin, although a member of the Eurofighter consortium, shows that it supports the French offer, and that Germany will also invest significantly in bringing the construction of Defense Europe to fruition.

However, there are many oppositions to the French offer in Belgium. On the one hand there are the unconditional fans of the F-35, like the Minister of Defense Steven Vandeput, who is politically paying for this somewhat too unconditional support, or like the general staff of the Belgian air forces. Like many NATO air forces, Belgian officers have undergone, for 15 years, real conditioning regarding the supposed performances of the F-35, and its elder brother, the F-22. 

On the other hand, the Belgian Flemish community tends to promote rapprochement with the Netherlands, which has chosen to equip itself with F-35s, even if it means halving its air force. 

Finally, a significant part of the population perceived the French offer, outside the framework of the call for tenders, as a lack of respect for Belgian institutions and sovereignty. It is therefore interesting to note that the issue of cost, although exploited by the Belgian opposition, is rarely put forward as a concern by public opinion. 

By moving the heart of the offer from the economic framework to the political framework, the French authorities have therefore responded skillfully to the concerns of part of public opinion. But the fact remains that, for many, the French plane is technologically outdated, a preconceived idea readily relayed by the supporters of Lockheed's offer. 

Once again, the National Defense industry and the Ministry of the Armed Forces are neglecting communication towards the public opinion of its prospects, focusing on key decision-makers. Yet these same key decision-makers respond to, and therefore are sensitive to, public opinion. 

One day, France will have to evolve in this area...

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