British trade association, The Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT), says the UK’s decision to pull out of the European Union (EU) “must be respected” as the tortuous jockeying for political positions enters its crucial stage.
UK prime minister, Theresa May, has indicated she will trigger the now infamous Article 50 [which starts the formal exit process – ed] by March next year, leading to intense speculation as to how the exit talks will be framed but the SMMT is insisting the will of the British people must be adhered to.
“The issue is of course, Europe, an issue which has divided politicians and divided a nation,” said outgoing SMMT president, Gareth Jones, at last night’s 100th anniversary dinner of the UK auto trade lobby group in London. “However, it did not divide our industry. The British people chose to vote out and that decision must be respected.
“We want to see new trading agreements established – we want to see the UK’s influence in the world enhanced but this cannot be at the expense of jobs and growth. There will be competing priorities, but [the] SMMT will continue to make its case to government; we have the strength of our successful sector behind us.
“We stand on the brink of a paradigm shift in transport – the car is becoming connected and potentially autonomous. Technologies will continue to advance, not just in what we make, but how we make them. The so-called fourth industrial revolution will be a step change in vehicle manufacturing.”
The SMMT president, shortly to be replaced by the deputy managing director of Toyota Motor Manufacturing UK and managing director, Toyota Motor Europe, London, Tony Walker, also reprised a familiar lament heard across developed nations, namely how to address the skills shortage in the engineering sector.
“Skills shortages have already been identified,” said Jones. “The prize is amazing and the UK must take steps now to ensure [it] remains competitive in the manufacturing future. People will remain at the heart of what we do.
“We face a huge challenge in recruiting the right people. Becoming an apprentice is not an second-class option – it never has been. Quality apprenticeships are crucial to our industry’s future.
“Our industry is currently enjoying tremendous success. This government has put industrial strategy at the heart of business in the Department of Business. It does so as it faces its toughest challenge – leaving the EU.”
Despite the undoubted uncertainty permeating the British political landscape, the economy and the automotive sector remain in rude health and have confounded many sceptics’ views so-called Brexit would precipitate a flight of confidence.
Inflation and unemployment are extremely low compared to other European countries while growth forecasts have consistently blind-sided those who predicted an economic battering.
What is still lurking in the shadows however, is whether or not the UK will have continued access to the European Union single market, at present a total unknown quantity or if it will have to revert to World Trade Organisation tariffs as a fallback.
However, as SMMT chief executive, Mike Hawes, made clear recently, quitting the Brussels club was not purely a matter of economics for the British electorate but rather one based on wider concerns.
“Business economics was not the motivation for the [referendum] result,” said Hawes. “British people were concerned about immigration and sovereignty and a degree of scepticism [about] Brussels.
“Economic arguments were not what motivated the result. The outcome was a vote to leave and the UK will leave the European Union. What that should look like is uncertain.
“UK government has made clear it will look to control immigration and to change the relationship with Europe. That is clearly not just our industry but [for] the wider business sector at large. We need to achieve a favourable trade negotiation while satisfying domestic concerns around immigration.”
The UK auto industry was given a major post-Brexit shot in the arm recently by Nissan’s decision to produce the next Qashqai at its Sunderland plant, as well as add production of the redesigned X-Trail, a development hailed by UK prime minister, Theresa May, at today’s (30 November) prime minister’s questions session in the House of Commons.