Vince Cable is right to support British business in procurement

Have Britain’s politicians finally realised that EU rules are not an impediment to an active industrial policy?

Vince Cable
Vince Cable. Photograph: Getty Images

Today Vince Cable told the BBC that the British government must be more "strategic" in how it procures, so that "as much as possible goes to British businesses". Far from incurring the wrath of the European Union, the evidence suggests that this new course of action would see Britain finally joining the European club.

Since 2000 the European Commission has initiated only 10 infringement proceedings against the UK for procurement violations. In contrast it has initiated 63 against Germany, 52 against Italy, 31 against Spain, 20 against France and 12 against the Netherlands. Infringement proceedings are initiated when the Commission believes that a member state has broken the rules. Britain is an outlier when it comes to procurement; strategic support for domestic firms is the norm.

Not only is "strategic" procurement the norm but it does not necessarily result in a protectionist "race to the bottom". Despite Germany topping the infringement rankings, German firms are also the most successful in winning foreign procurement contracts in Europe. German firms captured 26 per cent of the market between 2007 and 2009, Dutch firms captured 10 per cent, Italian firms 7 per cent and French firms 5 per cent. British firms came in second with 17 per cent of the market.

As well as procurement, Vince Cable also talked about supporting strategic industries, such as aerospace, where the UK has a comparative advantage. Financial support for domestic firms or industries, like discriminatory procurement, is also supposedly banned by the EU. However, here again the evidence suggests that Britain’s approach is out of kilter with the rest of Europe.

According to the European Commission, in a typical year between 1992 and 2010 Britain spent only 0.45 per cent of its total public spending on the economy on manufacturing, including many of the sectors, such as life-sciences and aerospace, which the Business Secretary touted. In contrast, in a typical year over the same period France spent 7.67 per cent, Germany spent 13.29 per cent, Italy spent 8.66 per cent and Spain spent 16.36 per cent. In terms of total spending in support of their economies, Germany spent, in a typical year between 1992 and 2010, £16.64 billion more than the UK and France spent £9.17 billion more.

In supporting their manufacturing sectors many of these countries incurred the ire of the Commission. As of June 2010, the last data available, Spain had 15 cases of state aid that had been determined illegal by the European Commission and needed paying back, Italy had 14, Germany had 7 and France had 5. The UK had only 1 case of state aid declared illegal. Once again, Britain is an outlier.

It is ironic that the UK, a country regularly singled out for its ambivalence, even opposition, towards the European Union is often found to be one of the most committed adherents to EU rules. When Bombardier failed to win the Thameslink procurement contract last year, politicians of both parties blamed one another and the EU rules. Vince Cable’s pronouncement today hopefully indicates that British politicians are finally realising the folly of this. When it comes to conducting an active industrial policy, EU rules are no impediment, just ask Europe.

Stephen Clarke is a Research Fellow at Civitas