With the UK Government’s Brexit White Paper facing significant political challenge, Carolyn Fairbairn, CBI Director-General, today (Tuesday) declared that ‘our country is at a crossroads’ with decisions being made now that will ‘shape the UK for generations to come’.
In a speech at the Farnborough Air Show, Carolyn urged politicians in the EU and UK to cut through the ‘sound and fury’ and put pragmatism and the economy first. She argues that the Prime Minister’s Brexit proposals ‘get pretty close to the answer firms are looking for’ but are ‘not perfect’, with more to do, especially for the UK’s service sectors.
She made the case for the UK’s world-leading aerospace, defence, security and space industries remaining at the heart of the UK economy, with EU-wide collaboration central to success across the continent.
Opening her speech, Carolyn said:
“I came through Westminster on my way here this morning. You could feel the crackling in the air of parliamentary electricity after last night’s fractious votes. But we do need to see through the sound and fury of the politics to what really matters.”
On the Brexit White Paper, Carolyn said:
“This is a blueprint that, behind the headlines, behind the politics, gets pretty close to the answers firms were looking for. It’s not perfect. There are gaps to fill, not least more to be done on services, which make up 80% of the UK economy.
“But the proposal for a free trade area in goods with a common rule book is exactly what businesses have asked for.
“It will protect supply chains across Europe. And the new customs proposals aiming for frictionless UK-EU trade may work in the longer term.
“We are clear that unless and until they do, we should stay with the status quo, but ideas deserve a hearing.
“The clock is ticking, time is running out, and no deal will hurt us all. So it is time for all politicians on all sides to be pragmatic.
“Last week, the UK Government showed it was willing to compromise. The EU should now seize the opportunity to do the same and respond to the UK’s proposal with open minds and flexibility.”
On the future of the economy and aerospace/defence industries, Carolyn said:
“Our country is at a crossroads. Decisions being taken now will shape the UK for generations to come.
“We are in the throes of deciding what kind of economy we want to be. There are serious questions to answer. We know that.
“But here’s one certainty. We want this sector, with its shining example of high productivity, innovation and ambition to be at the heart of our economy.
“This year, Farnborough celebrates its 70th birthday. And it marks a red-letter year for the sector here in the UK. In aerospace, defence, security, and space the UK is by far the leading exporter in Europe. And is the second largest in the world.
“And the secret of that success? True collaboration, business with government, alongside our great British universities.
“And crucially, it’s collaboration for the long term – 30 years not 30 months. That’s what makes a proper industrial strategy, to use the Prime Minister’s welcome phrase.
“And that’s why this industry is an example for the whole of our economy. Proof in spades of how Britain can compete with the world – and win.”
On the domestic front, Carolyn said:
“First of all, it is fantastic to see the Prime Minister’s new investment announced yesterday. Our young people will see a British space station built in their lifetime. The stuff of dreams and, back on earth, better futures in healthcare, science, security and quality of life. So if you’ll excuse the pun, it’s great to see this important deal finally have lift off.
“However, we also know delivery is everything. There have been several reviews announced this year. The Modernising Defence Programme. The Combat Air Strategy. Now it’s time for real acceleration on execution from ambition translated to action.
“And let me be specific. Take the Combat Air Strategy. It talks a lot about value for money and rightly so. But nowhere does the Government have a common definition of what “value for money” means in government procurement. So let’s get this sorted – and quickly – and we’re very happy to help.”
On a European level, Carolyn said:
“We must get our future relationship with the EU right. Your industries are crystal clear that we need frictionless trade with the EU, so parts can travel from Toulouse to Filton, or from Hamburg to Broughton, without delay or extra cost.
“Mobility of people alongside goods, so engineers can fly from Southampton to Sweden to fix aircraft wherever they break.
“And maintaining links with EU R&D programmes such as the landmark £8 billion Galileo Satellite project. All of this is vital not just for the UK, but for the whole continent of Europe. As one CEO here today put it to me last week, aerospace is a team sport.
“Without collaboration - at scale - all parts of Europe will be weakened in the global race.”
On staying competitive at the global level, Carolyn said:
“So let me now finish with a global lens on future success. And here I want to talk about international talent both from the EU, and around the world.
“This sector is one of the few that has an order book stretching out beyond 2030. And to deliver it, having the right people will be everything. In the civil sectors, access to skills from overseas is vital. Of course, we do need highly skilled workers.
“But technical backgrounds also matter. The engineer on a production line in Broughton. The machine operator in a factory in Cheltenham. Or the HGV driver who keeps the whole supply chain moving are all essential, if we are to tackle skills shortages here in the UK.
“Last week’s blueprint for Brexit which made the case for labour mobility was a welcome start. But for a truly world-class industry we need a truly world-class immigration system. And we will be urging the Government to set out the details on this as soon as possible and in close consultation with your sector and others.
“At a time when the UK is starting to see history in the making, we need to move from ambition to action. In Westminster. In Brussels. And in the rest of the world.”