The European Commission's Directorate-General for Competition is the EU equivalent of the U.S. Department of Justice Anti-trust Division plus units for controlling domestic subsidies to industry. According to a new policy briefing from the European Policies Research Centre at the University of Strathclyde, DG-Competition has released a draft of new regulations on "regional aid" (subsidies to firms in poorer regions of the EU) that, among other things, includes tighter rules on investment incentives.

EU rules on subsidies to business have long fascinated me because they present a stark contrast to the totally unregulated bidding wars for investment we see here in the United States. As I have shown, EU Member States have been able to obtain investments with far lower subsidies than U.S. states have, even for the same company! A big part of this is due to the rules on regional aid, which specify the maximum subsidy each region can give to a business, and reduce that maximum for investments over € 50 million. The proposed rules for 2014-2020 go further than ever before.

The big change is that large firms would only be eligible for regional aid in areas with gross domestic product per capita below 75% of the EU average, that is, only in the poorest areas of the European Union (plus so-called "outermost regions" like French Guyana). Currently, countries are allowed to give subsidies in regions that are only poor relative to national standards, and every Member State has areas that qualify to give investment incentives to large firms.

This would be a gigantic change, as many whole countries would no longer be able to give investment incentives to large firms. These countries are:

France (except for outermost regions)

 These countries would still be able to give regionally based investment subsidies to small and medium sized enterprises, which are defined as companies with fewer than 250 employees and either sales of less than or equal to € 50 million annually or a balance sheet of less than or equal to € 43 million.

If we did this in the United States, it would be the equivalent of saying that every part of the country with at least 75% of average per capita income would be barred from giving investment incentives, which of course would mean the poorest areas could give less than they do currently. This is obviously a political non-starter; we have to focus now on transparency and ending subsidized job piracy. But it's interesting to look ahead sometimes and see what kind of controls on subsidies are technically feasible.

Thanks to Fiona Wishlade, director of the European Policies Research Centre,  for sending this report to me.

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