Eurofighter: Collateral Damage

The Eurofighter Investigation Has Been Half-Hearted at Best, Although Hardly a Surprise

Opinion | Anneliese Rohrer | September 2007

One could have guessed. There was something odd in this sparely lit conference room in the Austrian Parliament in Vienna on that special winter afternoon 2007. A touch of indifference perhaps, as the committee of inquiry looked into the most important single acquisition of any government since 1945. The witnesses were apparently all suffering from loss of memory and committee chairman Peter Pilz from obvious lethargy. And those members of parliament who should have had a vested interest in the matter, all with the exception of the ones from the ÖVP, suffered from an acute fit of disinterest. No questions were asked while coffee was served, apples and frankfurters eaten.

In hindsight these hours seem symptomatic and should have foretold the outcome of this political investigation into the purchase of 24, 18, 15, 9, 6, 0 fighter jets, depending on the mood and the politics of the day. In retrospect the rather abrupt cancellation of any further investigation in early summer was hardly a surprise. The half-hearted effort to get to the core of the matter – so obvious on that one winter day – should have been read as a signal of developments to come.

One surprise, however, still lingers over this rather mysterious episode in Austrian politics:

Initially one would have expected chairman Pilz of the Greens would do his very best to cast a bright light on the government’s murky 2002 decision – one never properly explained to the public – that had all the earmarks of a devious deal and has raised more questions than answers over the last five years.

But Pilz never delivered his very best. For a while during the early stages of the investigation, he suggested that he had more information and would present it when the time was right. He never did. And unless he writes a Tell-it-all-Book soon – perhaps on how the coalition government of SPÖ and ÖVP thwarted his efforts to get to the truth by brutally aborting the investigation – the impression will remain: He never got near the truth.

On the Austrian political scene, the investigation into the Eurofighter left a lot of collateral damage, both by the way it was performed and by the infamous way it ended.

But not only that. It also offered some startling insights into politics as usual.

To concentrate on the positive side first: Without the committee’s deliberations, the public would never have known the extent of incompetence with which this billion Euro deal was handled; or the extent of the involvement of high level military personnel with representatives of the weapons industry; or the extent of political and financial favoritism that is still possible in this country; or the extent of the arrogance of the political/personal networks in Austria.

The broader public got at least a glimpse of the lack of professionalism that prevails in high political circles. That should be reason enough to applaud the initial decision to overrule the ÖVP and initiate the Eurofighter-committee.

Nevertheless, the damage done by short-circuiting the committee’s work and preventing the playing out of the full democratic process by far exceeds any advantages from the insights into Austrian politics.

The most severe damage was done to the institution of parliamentary committees. The sometimes highly politicized and petty deliberations plus the sorry ending discredited this important control mechanism over government. Such a committee, standing at the mercy of a majority in parliament instead of as a privilege of the minority, will probably not see the light of the political day again in the near future. The majority will argue that it was a waste of money and the public will probably agree because there were no tangible results.

Thus the matter goes to the very heart of the democratic process.

Secondly, the standing and the image of every Minister of Defense since 2002 – including the current Norbert Darabos – has been severely damaged, thus undermining the trust the public can have in members of the cabinet. Why Darabos decided to disavow the work of the committee by cutting a deal with EADS a week before the committee was to end deliberations remains a mystery. The decision ran contrary to every public utterance Darabos had made since taking office, making him a liar in the eyes of the public and posing more questions than answers concerning the overall Eurofighter-deal.

Thirdly, the image of the Austrian military and bureaucracy has been severely tarnished in face of the central ethical question that remains unanswered: How was it possible that a public servant like Air Chief Erich Wolf could run a private business for years with close ties to an EADS lobbyist and that every Minister of Defense since 2002 tolerated it?

By calling a halt to the investigations for reasons of party-politics, the coalition parties of the SPÖ and ÖVP have done democracy itself a great disservice, weakening its institutions and its processes and in the process, the public trust. They will have to accept that responsibility.

A longtime columnist and foreign correspondent for Die Presse, Anneliese Rohrer writes a weekly column in the Austrian daily Kurier. She is also a frequent political panelist and commentator on Austrian Television (ORF).

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