FRANKFURT (Reuters) -- The UK’s foreign-owned carmakers, strong supporters of the open markets created by the country's EU membership, would not shut their plants were the UK to leave the bloc, though future investment could be at risk, executives said.
Prime Minister David Cameron has promised a referendum on membership of the 28-member EU by the end of 2017 with many expecting the vote to come as soon as next year. Cameron has vowed to campaign to stay in the EU if he can renegotiate the UK's ties with the bloc but the election of a leftist opposition leader, who has given mixed signals on membership, has added to uncertainty over whether the country might vote for a 'Brexit' -- to leave the EU.
The UK’s car industry has been vocal on the benefits of EU membership and pro-EU campaigners have warned an exit could lead to job losses in an industry employing almost 800,000 people. However, executives at the Frankfurt auto show said their UK plants were not at risk were the country to leave.
"We made our plans, we've announced the investments ... and they were in full knowledge that there was a referendum so we believe in the UK," said Kevin Rose, board member for sales at Volkswagen-owned Bentley. "Regardless (of the outcome), we think that the UK is a good place for investment."
Fellow ultraluxury carmaker Rolls-Royce, which makes all its 200,000-pound-plus models in the country, said the UK was central to the brand's popularity among the super-rich around the world. "I've had lots of questions in my time in a way of why aren't you opening up a plant somewhere else," Torsten Mueller-Oetvoes, CEO of the BMW-owned brand said. "I said guys are you kidding me? This is so truly British, that it belongs to Britain and it is also part of our success story that we are from Britain," he said, while adding that maintaining access to markets was crucial.
Even at mass-market carmaker Opel, which shut a plant in Germany last year, there was no sign that the UK leaving the bloc would put its local facilities, which build Vauxhall-badged models, at immediate risk. "We have plants in Luton and Ellesmere port. We will not turn our back on England," CEO Karl-Thomas Neumann told journalists.
If Britons voted to leave the EU, "life would carry on," he said. "We would continue to find ways to invest."
Two opinion polls in recent days have shown the debate finely balance, with one giving a small lead to those in favor of leaving the EU and the second a slender advantage to those wanting to stay.
Wait and see
The UK's car industry has undergone a renaissance over the last few years with production expected to reach an all-time high of 1.95 million cars in 2017, beating the previous record set in 1972. Several executives said that if the UK left the EU, future investments would depend on the kind of deal it struck with other European nations on issues such as trade.
Ralph Speth, CEO of Jaguar Land Rover, which built almost one in three of the UK's 1.5 million cars last year, said it was impossible to plan now for 'Brexit'. "We don't know what kind of regulations we have to expect afterwards so in principle at the moment we only can guess and that's not a good basis for a decision-making process," said Speth, while affirming his commitment to the UK.
Neither JLR nor Japan's Nissan appear to have stopped investing as the vote approaches, with Nissan saying this month that it would build its next generation Juke SUV in the UK and JLR spending a further 120 million pounds ($186 million) at a UK plant.
But last year, before a referendum was certain, the CEO of Ford in Europe, Steve Odell, warned the firm would reassess its UK operations were the country to leave the EU.
And although Bentley said it had made a commitment to its UK plant for at least 15 to 20 years with a recent decision to build its first SUV there, its CEO said the country faced continual competition. "Volkswagen Group has 110 locations around the world where they produce cars," Wolfgang Duerheimer said. "That means they are not in any case reliant on the UK so if the situation changes dramatically, future decisions need to be considered among the circumstances you face."