Two of the Margaret Thatcher’s most steadfast beliefs were the benefits of European economic integration and the folly of governments providing financial aid to support particular businesses and industries, both of which she said contributed to the UK being labelled the ‘sick man of Europe.’ Ahead of the UK joining the European single market in 1992, Margaret Thatcher addressed businesses and encouraged them to think about the opportunities access to the single market would create. She said: “Just think for a moment what a prospect that is. A single market without barriers – visible and invisible – giving you direct and unhindered access to the purchasing power of over 300 million of the world’s wealthiest and most prosperous people.”
How times change. The current Conservative government, in its negotiations with the EU, is willing to sacrifice access to the single market so that it can offer state aid to British businesses. This about-turn raises a fundamental question: why is this government so keen to be able to financially support businesses, and what does it hope to achieve?
What are the rules on state aid?
State aid, broadly speaking, is any advantage granted by the government on a selective basis to businesses, and it can come in many forms: direct cash transfers, preferential tax treatment and financial guarantees offered by the state. Under EU rules, there is not a blanket ban on state aid. State aid can be provided if it is approved by the European Commission, it is of a small sum or if it is covered by the General Block Exemption Rule. The General Block Exemption Rule allows state aid to promote new activities that would not otherwise have taken place and promotes economic development without distorting competition. State aid that falls outside of these parameters and is viewed to distort competition by offering an advantage to a particular business or industry is illegal under EU law.
The UK and the EU are currently at loggerheads over state aid and a future free trade deal. The EU is demanding that in return for a free trade deal, the British government should commit to ‘dynamic alignment’ with the EU’s state aid rules – the so-called ‘level playing field’ commitments. The UK government, however, wants to have its own ‘separate and independent’ policy on state subsidies. The EU’s fear is that if it gives British firms free trade access to the single market without assurances on state aid, the government in the UK could subsidise green technology, for example, and undercut European made products, undermining the principles of the single market. The EU’s objections are quite reasonable – if you want to be a member of a club, you need to play by the rules. If there can be no agreement between the two sides, the UK will leave the EU on 1 January 2021 without a deal, an outcome that is looking increasingly likely (and even desirable to some within Downing St).
What’s the plan?
Should the UK leave without a deal, the government will not be able to splash the cash wherever it wants, as it will still be bound by World Trade Organisation (WTO) rules on state aid. One crucial difference though is that the WTO state aid restrictions only cover goods, while the EU’s rules cover both goods and services. This opens the door to the UK being able to financially support a range of industries in the service sector, an area where the UK already has a competitive advantage, especially in financial and professional services.
Dominic Cummings recently told civil servants in the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport that he was working on a plan to help the UK build ‘$1 trillion tech companies.’ Cummings views a no-deal Brexit and the removal of EU state aid restrictions as an opportunity for the government to support British start-ups to become genuine players on the world stage, having historically lagged behind the United States and China.
Looser rules on state aid would also help the UK be more flexible in times of emergency. At the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, HM Treasury was restricted in its ability to offer CLBILS loans to private equity-backed firms due to the EU’s rules on ‘businesses in difficulty.’ Due to the leveraged financial structure of these firms, under EU rules, they were not eligible for government financial support. Outside of the EU’s legal framework on state aid, the government would be free to financially aid whichever businesses it chose to, an option that will only become more appealing as the reality of increasing unemployment kicks in.
Will it work?
The idea of a British tech giant is an appealing one for the government. Foreign technology firms are difficult to tax, and it would make the government’s life a lot easier if it had a homegrown firm it could draw revenue from. The creation of high quality, well-paying jobs would also be a bonus.
There are some problems with Cummings’ plan, though. Historically, the British government has a chequered record of success in ‘picking winners.’ When compared to the private sector, governments lack the knowledge, expertise and market discipline to sustain and grow companies. This means risk is often not weighed effectively, leading to either over or under-investment. There is also the risk that business decisions get made not for sound commercial reasons but to fulfil some other government priority.
The interaction between the state aid tech giant plan and the government’s levelling up agenda also throws up some inconsistencies between its wider priorities. Tech firms tend to thrive in big cities and those that are home to elite universities. These are precisely not the areas the government wants to ‘level up’: post-industrial towns in the north and midlands. The price of state support for the tech sector would be the government trading off the UK’s remaining manufacturing base in the north and midlands by removing tariff-free access to its biggest market.
State aid is an appealing idea, but to be implemented well it requires a government to have patience, skill and good judgement. It will also involve the government having to make an unappealing sacrifice that will undermine its levelling up agenda. The deeper message of the government’s interest in state aid is that it is no longer ideologically wedded to the ideas of the past and it is more than willing to deviate from them if it is politically expedient to do so.