The head of Airbus has torn into the Government’s handling of Brexit, branding it a “disgrace” and warning that the company could pull out of the UK if its ability to compete on the global stage is harmed by a no-deal departure.
Tom Enders, chief executive of the aerospace giant, said a no-deal Brexit could force Airbus, which employs more than 14,000 people in the UK with around 110,000 more jobs connected in supply chains, to make “potentially very harmful decisions” about its UK operations.
Urging Britons not to listen to “Brexiteers’ madness” that the company was too established in the UK to leave, the business leader warned there are “plenty of countries” that would love to build its plane parts.
“In a global economy the UK no longer has the capability to go it alone. Major aerospace projects are multinational affairs,” Mr Enders said in a video message.
“It is a disgrace that, more than two years after the result of the 2016 referendum, businesses are still unable to plan properly for the future.
“We, along with many of our peers, have repeatedly called for clarity, but we still have no idea what is really going on here.”
Chancellor Philip Hammond is preparing to tell leaders at the World Economic Forum in Davos on Thursday that post-Brexit Britain will still be a “great place to do business”.
And Prime Minister Theresa May’s official spokesman said: “Airbus said in their statement that the delivery of a pragmatic Withdrawal Agreement that allows for an orderly Brexit is best for Britain.
“That is exactly why the Prime Minister has been working so hard to deliver a deal that gives businesses certainty, with an implementation period and an orderly exit.”
However, Mr Enders said Britain’s multibillion-pound aerospace sector, a world-leader for a century, is “standing at a precipice”.
“Brexit is threatening to destroy a century of development based on education, research and human capital,” he said.
“If there’s a no-deal Brexit, we at Airbus will have to make potentially very harmful decisions for the UK.”
Airbus’s UK operations generate around £6 billion of turnover annually, making it the country’s largest aerospace company.
At its 25 sites it builds components for a broad spectrum of products from planes to helicopters and satellites.
According to its website, the company employs 14,000 people in the UK and has trained more than 4,000 apprentices in the last 10 years. It spends “in excess” of £5 billion per year with UK suppliers, such as Rolls-Royce, and is the biggest supplier of large aircraft to the Royal Air Force.
At its largest site in Broughton, North Wales, its 6,000 employees assemble wings for Airbus commercial aircraft. Over the last 10 years it has invested more than £2 billion into the site.
Filton, a town north of Bristol, houses Airbus UK’s second largest UK factory with 3,000 employees. It is also responsible for wing assembly but houses teams working on aerodynamics research.
“Please don’t listen to the Brexiteers’ madness which asserts that ‘because we have huge plants here we will not move and we will always be here’. They are wrong,” Mr Enders said.
“Of course it is not possible to pick up and move our large UK factories to other parts of the world immediately. However, aerospace is a long-term business and we could be forced to redirect future investments in the event of a no-deal Brexit.
“And, make no mistake, there are plenty of countries out there who would love to build the wings for Airbus aircraft.”
The chief executive of aerospace trade body ADS, Paul Everitt, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that Mr Enders’s message was being “repeated consistently by the overwhelming majority of businesses in our sector and others up and down the country”.
Mr Everitt warned: “The introduction of any kind of customs activity or delays at the borders fundamentally undermines our competitiveness and adds cost.
“Added to that, we all operate in a consistent regulatory environment. Significant changes or differences in that regulatory environment drive cost and disruption through our businesses.”
Airbus’s facilities in Broughton and Filton were “a core part of our industry and what has been driving growth in our industry consistently over the last couple of decades”, helping make the UK aerospace sector the largest in Europe, he said.
“It’s not a question that Tom and Airbus are going to pull up their plant next week, but the reality is that future investment in that plant depends on us being globally competitive,” said Mr Everitt.
“When you introduce a new product, there are a list of countries out there who are actively bidding for that work. Our issues and concerns are that cost implications in the short term will drive the long-term conditions that will undermine our competitiveness.”
Jeremy Corbyn said problems for firms made it important to have a close post-Brexit relationship with the EU.
“Airbus said as much to me 18 months ago when I had some discussions with them and with many other companies,” the Labour leader said.
“They said unless they could be guaranteed ease of supply, particularly supply chains and the ability to move goods and equipment around very, very quickly, then they would obviously have to think again about being in this country.
“That is why we made very, very clear that a customs union and market access are absolutely crucial to our future relationship with Europe.”
Unite union assistant general secretary Steve Turner said: “No-deal Brexit fantasists should pay heed to this strongest warning yet from Airbus, a powerhouse of UK manufacturing and a central support to local and regional economies across the UK.
“The consequences of a no-deal Brexit on the future of the UK’s world leading aerospace sector, its integrated supply chain and wider manufacturing would be catastrophic.”
Labour MP Owen Smith, a supporter of the Best for Britain campaign for a second referendum, said: “The damage caused by Brexit won’t fly with big businesses like Airbus, and certainly won’t fly with the British people. Jobs and livelihoods are at risk.
“If companies like Airbus, or GE Aviation in my own patch, disinvest in Britain as a consequence of our leaving the EU, the Brexiteers in Parliament should never be forgiven.”
Leave-backing former Brexit minister David Jones told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “Tom Enders has made threats such as this for some time, but he knows that a large proportion of his very loyal workforce at Broughton actually voted to leave the EU.
“He is in a unique position to exert influence not only on the UK Government but also on the EU. I very much hope that people in Brussels will be listening to what he says just as closely as I have no doubt the British Government is doing.”
Mr Jones, whose Clwyd West constituency is near to Airbus’s Broughton facility, said that aircraft components were free of tariffs, and that any problems it might experience with border checks “can be overcome”.