Britain’s EU trade talks — and possibly a future trade deal with the U.S. — are poised on a knife’s edge. Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his chief advisor, Brexit campaign mastermind Dominic Cummings, believe the EU’s rules governing subsidies and other state aid to industry get in the way of post-Brexit Britain becoming a science and technology powerhouse. They are threatening to walk away from the trade talks, and to break the U.K. treaty commitments, to avoid the EU’s rules.
On one level, this seems an odd fight to pick. It’s not that Britain lacks innovation — as the spinoff of Arm from the now defunct British computing company Acorn shows. On the contrary, the U.K. has a thriving startup scene — at least, by European standards. By the end of 2019, the U.K. had 77 startups valued at more than $1 billion, more than twice as many as Germany, the next biggest, according to Dealroom, a data provider.
Nor can it be said that U.K. startups are starved of capital. The $13 billion in venture funding secured by British firms last year was more than that won by French and German startups combined. The U.K. government also provides tax credits and investments to spur innovation and startups.
But you can see the concern. The country that invented graphene has struggled to commercialize its innovations and hold on to companies once they reach a certain size. Arm, acquired by Japanese group Softbank Group Corp. and now by U.S. chipmaker Nvidia Corp., isn’t alone. Artificial intelligence firm DeepMind was bought by Google.
Those losses, as well as the U.K.’s dependence on Chinese mobile company Huawei Technologies Co.’s 5G technology, seem to be what has prompted the focus on building better state support for the country’s tech sector.
One long-standing problem is that Britain underfunds research compared to its major trading partners. The 37.1 billion pounds ($47.5 billion) that the U.K. cumulatively spent on R&D in 2018 represented just 1.7% of the country’s gross domestic product — less than both the 3.1% spent by Germany and the OECD average of 2.4%. Google parent Alphabet Inc. alone spent $27 billion on R&D in the 12 months through June.
But the EU state aid regime isn’t to blame. The vast majority of state aid is allowed automatically. Rather, the U.K. has generally chosen to provide less aid than other members. In 2019 Britain, for example, spent far less on subsidies to companies (0.34% of GDP in 2019) than Germany (at least 1.45% of GDP) and France (0.79%) did.
In 2018, the European Commission approved a plan to give 1.8 billion euros ($2.1 billion) of public funding to the semiconductor industry, whose research and development costs are the highest in tech. France committed to contributing as much as 355 million euros to help its chip companies, Italy chucked in 524 million euros and Germany gave 820 million euros. All have chipmaking giants, from Franco-Italian STMicroelectronics NV to Infineon AG and Robert Bosch GmbH in Germany.
The U.K. sought permission for just 48 million euros, yet still hasn’t paid any of it. That’s partly because the U.K. has tended to invest upstream, particularly in academic research, leaving far fewer funds available to help innovative companies translate their ideas into products. A revised state aid policy could provide R&D cash credits to foster technology clusters and help them move toward commercialization.
There is no question that, done well, governments can make a huge difference in the development of a vibrant technology sector; Singapore, Taiwan and Israel are good examples of this. And yet the idea of an expansive, new policy strategy for the tech sector makes many Conservatives nervous, not least because picking winners is risky.
“France, Japan and China have done a better than job than we have over the years,” said Julian Birkinshaw, a professor of strategy and entrepreneurship at London Business School. “But they’ve also had more failures than they’ve had successes.” Even so, investing in later-stage ventures is often a safer bet than the scattergun academic approach. Government funding can be an accelerator, but it has to come at the right juncture.
Alok Sharma, Johnson’s secretary of state for business, energy and industrial strategy, insists the government’s intentions aren’t to return to the failed industrial policies of the 1970s. But the government hasn’t yet published its new state aid program.
Cummings says he wants to fund only the best projects and sectors. But politics may muddy the picture. Johnson’s big governing vision is to rebalance the U.K. economy to provide jobs and opportunity in the north of the country, where many of his new voters live. It’s hard to imagine that state aid decisions won’t in part be governed by keeping these voters happy.
Many of the government’s tech investments have already raised eyebrows. For example, earlier this year it took a 45% stake in bankrupt satellite company OneWeb, arguing the purchase would help fill the gap left by the U.K. losing access to the EU’s Galileo navigation satellite system and also help domestic broadband. But the investment was rushed through with little scrutiny and over the reservations of internal experts.
In some ways the government’s failed foray into developing its own Covid contact-tracing app, instead of using the joint Google-Apple approach adopted elsewhere in Europe, reflects the hubris that could get it into trouble as it sets out to nurture a British Google. It’s a mindset that has been aptly called the “Minitel illusion.”
Minitel, recall, was the 1980s French terminal that was backed by the state as an alternative to the U.S.-developed Internet but finally retired in 2012. It was a brilliant invention for its time, but the high-cost terminals could not compete with the multitasking personal computer and it had little usefulness outside France. The French government, with financial backing from the EU and technical support from Germany, also tried to create a literal competitor to Google, dubbed Quaero, from the Latin for “I seek,” in 2008. It ended in 2013.
Picking winners is problematic, but so is focusing R&D funding so heavily on the university sector. Helping later stage corporate research may split the difference effectively for Britain. But apart from the danger of repeating the errors of the past, the U.K. could pay a high price, in terms of market access, for Johnson’s determination that Britain should have an independent state aid policy.
As for Arm, its re-sale stands as both a sign of the ingenuity of Britain’s tech sector, but also limitations that have nothing to do with Britain’s EU membership. Arm co-founder and venture capitalist Hermann Hauser has argued that the sale to Nvidia will result in job losses in the U.K. and compromises Britain’s “technology sovereignty.” It’s an interesting concept and one with innate appeal to the economic nationalism of Johnson’s Conservatives. But ultimately technological sovereignty, if it exists at all, cannot be decreed. It must be built.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Therese Raphael is a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion. She was editorial page editor of the Wall Street Journal Europe.
Alex Webb is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering Europe’s technology, media and communications industries. He previously covered Apple and other technology companies for Bloomberg News in San Francisco.