French car giant Peugeot sees ‘very nice opportunity’ in Brexit

French carmaker PSA, which this week bought Opel and Vauxhall in a bid to create a European champion in the auto industry, must still face the uncertainty of Britain's withdrawal from the European Union.

French car giant Peugeot sees 'very nice opportunity' in Brexit
Photo: AFP

The group believes however that even a so-called 'hard' Brexit, in which Britain would leave the single EU market, could be a “very nice opportunity”.

PSA announced Monday the acquisition of General Motors' European subsidiary, which includes Germany's Opel and Britain's Vauxhall, for 1.3 billion euros ($1.38 billion).

The takeover will see PSA regain its position as the second-biggest car manufacturer in Europe after Germany's Volkswagen group, overtaking its French rival Renault.

British Prime Minister Theresa May is due to trigger Article 50 by the end of March, starting the two-year EU divorce process.

“Brexit is interesting because nobody knows how it's going to unfold,” said PSA Chief Executive Carlos Tavares.

A hard Brexit would see Britain's departure from the EU's single market or tariff-free zone, while ending the free movement of people.

In a more amicable, or soft Brexit, Britain might retain at least some access to the single market in return for free movement of people.

“If it's not a hard Brexit, then everybody will be happy because if it's not hard then the markets will be in a better shape and everybody will benefit from it,” Tavares told a news conference.

In that situation, it will be all about “performance”, allowing PSA “to be competitive in the UK against all the other regions, all the other countries”.

“It can be an opportunity that can be strengthened, eventually by the weakness of the pound.”

Britain is Opel's largest European market, where vehicles are sold under the Vauxhall marque. It also employs about 5,000 people in Britain, most of them in two factories located in Ellesmere Port in northwestern England and Luton in the southeast.

But even a hard Brexit could be “a very nice opportunity” for Vauxhall's supply chain “to be able to source the UK from the UK”, according to Tavares.

“In that situation… possibly it is important that we can source parts from the UK. So that the cost structure will be more in pounds as much as the revenue structure.

“So if it's a hard Brexit, then, of course, the supplier basis needs to be developed, and I think this is something that the UK government completely understands.”

GM blames Brexit

In London, a Downing Street spokesman Monday was asked about reports that PSA was keen to keep a plant in Britain in case of a hard Brexit to protect themselves against potential tariffs.

He said he was not aware of this issue being mentioned in conversations between London and PSA.

“The company themselves have said this morning that Brexit was not the driving factor behind the decision,” he said.

For Len McClusky, the secretary general of the Unite trade union, “there is also a role for the government to play. The uncertainty caused by Brexit is harming the UK auto sector”.

Last year, some 1.72 million cars were assembled in Britain, or 8.5 percent more than in 2015. Eight out of 10 have been exported. Among those shipped abroad, 56 percent were to the European Union.

GM's chief executive Mary Barra blamed the June Brexit vote and the fall in the value of the pound afterwards for 2016 losses. The group had been hoping for a return to profitability for Opel and Vauxhall, but it ended up reporting
a loss of $257 million.

She said the financial results for its European subsidiary “have improved dramatically” in recent years.

“It's clear that the team would have hit the goal of breaking even in 2016 had it not been for Brexit.”

Opel and Vauxhall have booked repeated losses in recent years, costing the Detroit-based GM around $15 billion since 2000.

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Brits in Europe won right to vote for life in UK but questions remain

After years of campaigns and promises British citizens living abroad finally won the lifelong right to vote in UK general elections in April 2022. But campaigners say more needs to be done to allow all those Britons abroad to be able cast their votes easily.

Brits in Europe won right to vote for life in UK but questions remain

What’s in the law?

The Elections Act 2022 introduced several changes to the current legislation on electoral participation. Among these, it removed the rule by which British citizens lose their voting rights in the UK if they have lived abroad for more than 15 years

The new rules also abolished the requirement to have been previously registered in the UK electoral roll to become an overseas voter. In addition, the registration in the electoral roll will now last up to three years instead of only one year.

It is estimated that these changes could increase the number of overseas voter registrations by some 3 million. But the way new measures will be applied in practice is still to be defined.

READ ALSO: ‘Mixed feelings’ – British citizens in Europe finally get right to vote for life

Defining the practicalities

Under the new law, Britons living abroad will have to register to vote in the last place they were registered in the UK. This means that people who have never lived in the UK will be ineligible to vote, regardless of how long they have been overseas, while those who left when they were children will be able to use a parent or guardian’s address.

But given that the UK does not require residents to register with local councils, how to prove previous UK residence? “Typical documents accepted as a proof of residence are Council tax or utilities bills, but not everyone will have them or will have kept them in an international move,” says Fiona Godfrey, co-founder of the British in Europe coalition.

Ballot papers are pictured in stacks in a count centre as part of the 2019 UK general election. (Photo by ANDY BUCHANAN / AFP)

Other questions concern how people will effectively cast their ballot. UK citizens overseas will be able to vote by post or by proxy or in person at their polling station if they are in the UK at the time of the election. However, few people are likely to travel to the UK for an election and in the past there have problems and delays with postal voting.

The Electoral Commission has recommended that overseas electors appoint a proxy to vote on their behalf. But who could that be for people who have been away from their constituency for a long time?

New secondary legislation will have to answer these questions, defining how to be included in the electoral roll and how to exercise the voting right in practice.

According to British in Europe, the government should present draft legislation in the first half of the year so that the parliament can adopt it before summer and registrations of overseas voters can start in the autumn.

British in Europe survey

British in Europe are currently running a survey to understand the difficulties UK citizens abroad may face in the registration and voting process, as well as their intention to participate in elections.

The survey asks for instance which documents people can access to prove their previous residence in the UK, what problems they had voting in the past, and if and how they plan to vote in the future.

“We need to get an up-to-date picture of British citizens living around the world and have information to make recommendations to the government, as it prepares secondary legislation,” Godfrey said. “If millions of people will exercise their voting rights, there will be consequences for council registration offices, post office and authorities that will manage the process, among other things” she argued.

The right to vote concerns only UK parliamentary elections and national referendums, not elections in the devolved administrations of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, or at local level.

The survey is open to UK citizens living anywhere in the world and is available at this link.