Defence has always been the embarrassing cousin of the Brexit debate.
People would pop-up with warnings about the UK being ushered into new EU schemes, or how the schemes would be put into an exit deal to make BRINO – Brexit in Name Only. Each time the warnings were dismissed by MPs as fanciful and impossible. Yet each time they turned out to be true.
The latest in this series is about UK Government procurement. Yesterday, Michel Barnier told diplomats that the UK had buckled and would keep the EU’s procurement rules rather than the WTO’s. The reason this is a problem is that EU procurement is highly restrictive. Under WTO, it is far easier to shorten procurement times in emergencies and bypass the need for international contract competition altogether in contracts related to defence.
No.10 said nothing of the Barnier revelation, but then we noticed that, a day earlier, the UK Government had released information to indicate it will keep EU rules. It came in the form of a ‘consultation document’, which actually does more ‘telling’ than ‘consulting’. In it, mandarins ask whether people like their proposal for small changes while the bones of the rules remain the same.
Once again, this was discovered by campaigners and researchers worried about the defence topic during the negotiations. We had asked several ministers whether the UK would be grasping the economic opportunities of Brexit by using WTO government procurement rules instead of legacy EU rules.
The focus of our questions was the imminent Ministry of Defence contract for three large supply ships. Under WTO rules, this huge contract competition can be limited to UK bidders, bringing a guarantee of jobs, investment, training and opportunity for our country, even if it is at a slightly bigger cost than a state-subsidise shipyard overseas. Our concern as Leave campaigners was motivated patriotic national interest, not personal gain. None of us have shares in shipyards.
The answer was always from an official instead of a minister and always a stubborn refusal to change the EU-made rules which apply in the UK. They always tried to bend the argument by claiming that the EU rules were no different to WTO, a claim made ludicrous by the example of Canada which uses the WTO’s more flexible rules to keep all defence shipbuilding, even coastguard boats, in Canada. WTO provides a comprehensive defence-related exemption from international competition, the EU’s equivalent exemption is very narrow and hard to use.
So, in fairness to No.10, the origins of this EU giveaway go back many months and are found in the words of officials rather than the words of a minister. Conservative ministers are not necessarily the cause of errors made by this Government because the above events show that they don’t always appear to be running it.
All of this sadly brings us to another conclusion about our Government’s direction, that is to say another instance in which defence acts as the ‘canary in the mine’ which warns us of errors by officialdom.
The conclusion stems from the question, ‘Why would officials be so mad keen on EU rules which damage British interests, harm British industry and impose cost and inconvenience on contracting authorities?’
There are two answers.
There are two answers; the first, at least in the defence procurement arena, is to do with what the EU’s procurement rules permit. Keeping the EU rules intact allows Whitehall officialdom to propose UK involvement in a range of EU schemes for defence and military-industrial integration. No doubt the MPs will once again cry ‘fanciful’, ‘impossible’. That is because MPs don’t understand the schemes and have not been kept informed by the officials who are lining them up. It is a shame that MPs are so adrift because officials have already managed to shoehorn the schemes into the Government’s proposals for the future EU ‘partnership’.
Once again, this is another EU defence topic in which we see strangely coincidental documents being released, this time on the EU side. In previous weeks, at a crucial time when officials have orchestrate No.10’s collapse of resolve on procurement, the EU has published rules for non-EU states like the UK to take part in the schemes mentioned above, namely the European Defence Fund and Permanent Structured Cooperation and the European Defence Agency – all of which are found in the Political Declaration.
Sure, the Whitehall line, which once again appears to have little to no cerebral input from actual ministers, says that the UK wants ‘ad hoc’ involvement and government ‘doesn’t think it needs an institutional arrangement’ but would settle for a legal tie. (What’s the difference when it binds us anyway?) The trouble with ‘ad hoc’ is that this is no different to EU member states and to ‘qualify’ for ad hoc involvement requires the adoption of permanent policy commitments. When this is combined with any legal or financial commitment, the UK would suddenly notice it has willingly put on a straight-jacket.
The rules for the EU schemes mentioned created heavy legal links with funding, policy and other EU institutions.
There are simultaneously a few other flanking manoeuvres by officialdom to do with such things as defence industry opinion and gaining ‘EU data adequacy’ for intelligence sharing, all of which underpin the wider Whitehall push towards EU attachment.
The second, is that once we see the benefits of re-shoring the building of Royal Navy vessels and shipyards begin to become sustainable again we make it far harder to rejoin the EU because we create thousands of jobs and community prosperity dependent on staying outside EU procurement rules. If we adopt those rules even though we are outside the EU then rejoining becomes very much easier.
A few MPs do at least realise something is amiss even if they don’t see the urgency. Words like ‘murky’, ‘very dodgy’ and ‘typical EU’ abound, but few MPs are brave enough to tackle the topic properly due to an understandable fear of derision over a supposed ‘EU army’. All they need to do is say ‘there’s no EU army yet’ and ‘this problem is about being tied into ratcheting EU rules’.
They might also fear taking on the Civil Service. All they need to do is deal directly with ministerial colleagues and tell those ministers to wake up and stop the giveaway on procurement during the Brexit trade talks, which is the thin end of the wedge.
This article first appeared on www.brexitwatch.org and has been reproduced here with the permission of David Banks.