Some remarks on the House of Commons' Brexit Research Briefing--Procurement Section

The Library of the House of Commons (HoCL) has issued a Research Briefing on the impact of Brexit across policy areas. It is obviously an effort in the right direction of providing research-based input to the ongoing Brexit debate. As such, it should be welcome.

However, a 184-page document cannot deal with the complexities and detail needed to properly assess policy impacts in a substantial way. Having insufficiently detailed information runs the risk of oversimplifying reality and presenting the likely impact of Brexit in a distorted fashion.

In my view, this is clearly the case concerning the HoCL research briefing's focus on public procurement, on which it simply sets out the following:

3.5 Public procurement
Much UK public procurement is regulated by EU rules, which are set out in the core EU Treaties, in EU directives and in UK regulations that implement the directives. These rules are controversial because they are often seen as overly bureaucratic and because they limit the ability of public bodies to ‘buy British’. They do, however, offer UK firms the opportunities to supply the public sectors of other countries, as well as making it easier for the UK public sector to reach a wider range of potential suppliers, potentially increasing value for money in its purchases.
In practice, the extent of direct cross-border public procurement is limited. An estimated 1.3% of the value of larger UK public sector contracts was awarded directly abroad in 2009-2011. Some 0.8% of the value of larger public contracts secured by UK companies was directly from abroad.
Alternatives and withdrawal
At present, the EU rules that apply to public procurement in the UK also apply to other EEA countries, under the EEA agreement. Switzerland is subject to a separate arrangement.
If the UK were to leave the EU and the EEA, it would ultimately need to decide whether it wanted agreements with other countries to mutually open up their public procurement markets. This could be done through individual trade agreements, or the UK could participate as an individual country in the WTO’s General Procurement Agreement (GPA) for certain goods and services. However, this would mean that the UK would have to allow suppliers in other countries to bid for some UK public procurement opportunities, and the WTO route would mean that the UK had to follow certain procedures in its procurement processes – potentially doing away with some of the reduction of burden that could follow from no longer having to apply the EU rules. (p. 39, references omitted)

My trouble with the procurement section of the HoCL research briefing concerns two main points:

1. That it misrepresents the economic importance of cross-border public procurement between the UK and the rest of the EU by suggesting that it only affects between 0.8% and 1.3% of large value procurement contracts.

The HoCL research briefing uses statistics that focus exclusively on direct cross-border award of contracts to SMEs (which is indeed very low), but does not mention indirect cross border effects derived from the establishment of EU suppliers in the UK, and UK suppliers in other EU Member States, who then sell from their respective "domestic" subsidiaries (for instance, Siemens UK would qualify as a domestic supplier for the purposes of direct cross border tenders, while most people would agree that the Siemens group is German for industrial policy purposes).

The data also omits sales through wholesalers/intermediaries, which are also very important, particularly in goods (UK manufacturers, particularly larger ones, may be selling a good part of their exports to foreign public sector buyers through intermediaries established in those countries, which could decide to stop sourcing the goods from UK manufacturers if this created issues in terms of rules of origin/tariffs, etc after Brexit).

The Commission issued data in 2011 that estimated indirect cross-border procurement much closer to 25% in value at EU level (see p. 36 here). There is no segregated data for the UK of which I am aware, but in my view there is the potential for a much deeper economic impact than the HoCL policy brief suggests by only presenting figures in the 0.8-1.3% range. This is misleading, in my opinion.

2. That it misrepresents accession to the WTO government procurement agreement (GPA) as a future alternative, instead of acknowledging that it is the present reality in the UK.

Indeed, the HoCL research briefing presents the WTO GPA as an alternative to the status quo without mentioning that the EU rules already ensure reciprocal treatment under the GPA--or, in other words, that the UK already gives access to its procurement markets to undertakings from GPA signatories and already has access to their markets by virtue of EU membership.

The key point is that a withdrawal from the EU would immediately imply a loss of access to GPA signatories' markets for UK businesses and, thus, a negotiation of single GPA membership by the UK would not provide any advantage to UK businesses but, at best (that is, assuming the UK did not need to make concessions beyond the current EU concessions), it would be a quest to keep the status quo. Dr Clair Gammage discusses this important issue here (although regarding general WTO membership).

Even if there are new talks about its failure, it would also be important to stress that the TTIP contains a very important chapter on extended access to US-EU procurement markets, which would likely not be replicable outside of the EU.

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Overall, in my view, this shows that more detailed research and analysis is required than that with which the HoCL has been able to engage to date, and should serve as an indication of the difficulties in meaningfully compiling concise documents that can usefully support policy decisions. Assessing the implications of Brexit in discrete policy areas is, by itself, a daunting task. And assessing the impact of Brexit across the economy and the legal system may just be an impossible goal. MPs would be well advised to keep that in mind and to seek more detailed input on specific areas of concern.