Mark Francois is a former Defence Minister, and is MP for Rayleigh and Wickford. He is Vice Chairman of the European Research Group.
At a press conference at their Toulouse headquarters on May 21, the new CEO of Airbus, Guillaume Faury, announced a welcome shift in Airbus’ policy towards Brexit. Airbus’ new leader told assembled journalists that the company is now resolved to remain in the United Kingdom, regardless of the outcome of Brexit and, moreover: “The United Kingdom is part of Airbus and Airbus is part of the United Kingdom and we would like to progress that”.
We should be under no illusions about what a major shift this is in the position of one of Europe’s largest companies. The previous CEO, the combative Tom Enders, was a fierce critic of Brexit. A couple of years ago, he told the annual dinner of the Aerospace Defence and Space Trade Body (ADS) that Brexit was a clear mistake and that the United Kingdom would suffer as a result.
More recently, on 19th January, with debates in the Commons on whether or not to approve the Prime Minister’s Withdrawal Agreement at a crucial stage, he issued a formal statement on behalf of the company, containing a thinly veiled threat to the security of Airbus’ 14,000 employees in the UK, saying that, in the event of a “disorderly Brexit” that: “Airbus could take potentially very harmful decisions for the UK”
ConservativeHome readers may recall that I reacted to this the following day, when I accused Enders of attempting to bully MPs in the Commons regarding how to vote and ripped up his statement live on BBC television – for which, it must be said, I received one or two emails as a result.
This is not the first time that Airbus have threatened to withdraw jobs from the UK. On previous occasions they have muttered darkly about the sustainability of the UK business, when it suited their purposes. To my mind, the Government of the United Kingdom should not allow itself to be bullied by any company – no matter how large – particularly when the bullying is essentially an idle threat.
I have visited Airbus’ highly advanced wing manufacturing plant at Broughton, as a member of the Defence Select Committee. For the company to attempt to reproduce these very high tech facilities in Hamburg, Toulouse, or elsewhere would undoubtedly cost them many billions of Euros – something they simply cannot afford, whilst having to compete aggressively with Boeing in global markets. In addition, Broughton’s highly skilled workforce would also be pretty difficult to replicate elsewhere, in anything under the medium to long term. Basically, we should have called the company’s bluff long ago but, hopefully, under new leadership, this will no longer prove necessary.
Now that Theresa May is due to resign and the chances of us leaving the European Union on the 31st October have markedly increased, it is welcome to see Airbus reacting to this new reality. Moreover, it does now seem that the company are in the hands of a new and more enlightened generation of leaders, of which Faury is but one example. For instance, the new Head of Airbus’ Defence and Space Division, Dirk Hoke, is a German who did military service in the Bundeswehr.
A little while before Enders’ made his statement, I, along with several other MPs, entertained Hoke in the House of Commons (at Airbus’ request!). After a tour of the Palace, we ended up drinking on Commons Terrace, swapping congenial stories about when he was a young soldier in the Bundeswehr and I was a young soldier in Britain’s Territorial Army, training at weekends to help defend West Germany from Russian armour.
Although he had genuine reservations about Brexit, Hoke was much more concerned about the integrity of NATO, and the ability of the United Kingdom and Germany to work together in defence of the Atlantic Alliance and, to continue to retain American support. I suspect this was a totally different conversation from that which one might have enjoyed with Enders – which is one reason why I understand Hoke is now being tipped as a future Corporate Chief Executive. (I hope I am not destroying his ascending career by predicting this!).
In summary (and leaving the emerging £2.6 billion procurement disaster that is the A400M aircraft to one side), we can perhaps hope that the new and more enlightened leadership at Airbus will come to accept the reality that the United Kingdom is leaving the European Union in October 2019 and be prepared to be a more positive and reliable partner in the UK going forward. Let’s wait and see.