Letter From The UK: Winds Of Change

Have you ever seen a plastic bag caught in swirling gusts of wind? It flies this way and that, never knowing where it will go and where it will come to rest when the wind drops.

That’s Europe, that is; right now.

Winds of change are blowing across the bleak political landscape that could affect the car industry and life in general for Great Britain.

Goodbye General Motors

It won’t have escaped your attention that General Motors is considering selling its loss-making European operation to the French PSA Group, which builds Citroen and Peugeot vehicles. This could have repercussions for the Vauxhall brand in the UK (badged as Opel on continental Europe). This is of sufficient concern for the British Prime Minister, Theresa May, to meet up with the Peugeot boss, Carlos Tavares, to discuss the potential issues, of which could mean job losses.

GM has two motor plants here, at Ellesmere Port and Luton, plus sundry ancillaries. They build, among others, the popular if unexciting Corsa and Astra models which regularly feature in the UK automotive top ten. No doubt Mr. Tavares will make the usual positive noises but, as in any industry, can PSA ultimately be trusted?

It has always been very clear that when a sale or takeover of this magnitude happens there will always be an element of what is euphemistically described as “rationalization.” You can bet your bottom dollar when that word is used, then someone, somewhere is going down. In this case the ax will certainly fall on the necks of British workers. The PSA Group is very unlikely to expose its own workers to the inevitable.

Your average French car worker can get very testy, I hear, when their job is threatened.

Vauxhall Ellesmere Port facility. Photo: Opel Pressroom Europe.

Brexit. Again.

Since the British voted to leave the EU last year, there has been a further rise of Europe’s populist movements that are on the cusp of sweeping far-right, nationalist, and euro-skeptic parties into power across the continent in a series of upcoming elections. Political groups of this type, like our very own United Kingdom Independence Party, were once seen as buffoons; a joke. Well, Europe’s smug elite are not laughing now. Once consigned to the fringes of the political scene, these parties now hold considerable sway, arguably enhanced by President Trump’s notorious victory.

UKIP’s former leader Nigel Farage – a friend of the American President – has handed over the leadership reins to a man who makes Cletus Spuckler seem like a dangerous intellectual; yet they are within a gnat’s whisker of winning another seat in the UK parliament.

In the Netherlands, a certain Geert Wilders with his Tarzan-like hair seems very likely to carry his far-right party to victory in the soon to be held Dutch elections. Similarly, Marine Le Pen of the French Front National is within an outside chance of becoming President soon. It is my contention the Euro-federalists have brought it upon themselves. Never has the running of the European Union seemed so remote. The British people see unelected, often self-important people calling the shots and they don’t like it.

Voters tend, in general, to see things in black and white. That’s why the UK voted “out.” It may not prove to be a rational decision but the plain fact is that as things stand, the voters just didn’t like the smell emanating from Brussels. This same sense of being talked down to by the political elite could explain the rise of your President.

The turmoil is sure to continue.

Winds Of Change

This turmoil is highly likely to affect the car industry and not just in Europe. In the United States, your President’s proto-protectionist policies are already having an unsettling effect on foreign car makers. American manufacturers are bringing jobs back to the States and the United Auto Workers, so we hear, are planning an advertisement to get U.S. car customers to “Buy American.”

That does not bode well for the much-vaunted global car industry.

Meanwhile, back here in blighted Britain – that running sore on the nose of European integration – we await the verdict on the GM fire-sale. With the British Government planning to signal our official leaving of the European Union in March, there are still stormy seas ahead for the UK car industry.

Already car prices in Britain have risen by over five percent since that fatal vote, thanks to a weak currency and other Brexit woes. Even if the Vauxhall factories continue production in some form or another, will their exports be subject to tariffs on the European border just a few scant miles across the English channel? Will our tit-for-tat tariffs have a similar effect on Euro car makers?

If this turmoil does adversely affect the European car industry and the PSA Group hits rough waters, who are they going to put in the lifeboats first? It won’t be the neighbors, it will be their own family, that’s for damn sure. Call me paranoid but I think this wind of change is an ill one and, like President Trump’s hair in a gale, the outcome won’t be pretty.

Geoff Maxted is a motoring writer, photographer, and author of our Letter From The UK series. Follow his work on Twitter: @DriveWrite

Cover Photo: Foto-RaBe

About The Author

Formerly a cycling and mountain biking writer and photography lecturer,
Geoff lives in England and mostly writes about the world of cars and
motoring and life in general. A member of the UK’s Guild of Motoring
Writers, he now provides news, views, and opinions for various
automotive print and online publications. He is not easily pleased.

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