Britain’s top businesses are cranking their Brexit plans into gear, shifting operations abroad to ensure a smooth transition when the nation quits the European Union in one year’s time.
A string of airlines, banks and other corporate household names have activated their contingency plans to move jobs or restructure amid ongoing uncertainty, as British Prime Minister Theresa May battles Brussels for a post-Brexit trade deal.
Britain intends to seek free trade deals with its major trading partners once it leaves the EU, as planned, in March 2019.
Many large companies want to retain their London presence however despite jitters over the economic outlook.
Household goods
Anglo-Dutch giant Unilever on Thursday named Rotterdam over London to host its headquarters, dealing an early blow to Britain’s efforts to keep multinational companies onside after Brexit.
Unilever, whose brands include yeast extract Marmite, PG Tips tea and Persil washing powder, intends to ‘simplify’ from two legal entities into a single one incorporated in the Netherlands, but its 7,300 workers in Britain are safe.
While analysts see the decision as a consequence of Britain’s plans to leave the EU in March 2019, the government and the company argue that Brexit has nothing to do with it.
Financial services
But a swathe of big-hitting financial institutions, including British bank HSBC, Swiss peer UBS and US giants JPMorgan and Morgan Stanley, have confirmed plans to move some activities to Paris, as well as to Amsterdam, Dublin and Frankfurt.
US asset manager Northern Trust has chosen Luxembourg for its base, and US bank giant Citigroup says it will move some operations from London to Frankfurt.
Japanese megabank MUFG has picked Amsterdam as a base for its EU securities operation. Other Japanese firms including Nomura Holdings, Daiwa Securities and Sumitomo Matsui Financial Group have said they are planning to move EU bases from London to Frankfurt.
The Bank of England estimates that 10,000 UK financial services jobs could move abroad on the first day of Brexit, after warnings of up to 75,000 relocations in total.
London has already accepted that under Brexit, the capital’s financial firms will lose so-called passporting rights that allow them to trade freely with other EU countries.
Finance minister Philip Hammond says that a Brexit trade deal will happen only if it includes the financial services industry, but Brussels insists there will be no ‘cherry picking’ for any sector.
Earlier this month, French Economy Minister Bruno Le Maire suggested that thousands of jobs will move from London to France after Brexit.
Britain’s largely foreign-owned and key car sector is also bracing for Brexit.
Nissan boss Carlos Ghosn approved new investments at Sunderland plant in northeast England, after the Japanese giant received private guarantees from London over Brexit.
The chief executive of French carmaker PSA Peugeot Citroen has however warned that Brexit threatens the future of a key car plant run by its UK-based Vauxhall division.
Carlos Tavares said that uncertainty over Britain’s eventual exit from the European Union has placed in doubt the future of PSA’s Ellesmere Port factory in northwest England.
Britain’s EasyJet, Europe’s second biggest carrier by passenger numbers, has applied for a British operating licence to ensure it can continue flying.
Other airlines, like low-cost rivals Ryanair and Wizz Air, have made similar moves amid concerns that Brexit could severely disrupt air traffic between Britain and continental Europe.
Back in July 2017, EasyJet applied for a new air operator’s certificate in Austria – and established a Vienna-based division to allow it to continue flying across Europe regardless of the final Brexit deal between Brussels and London.
Airlines face uncertainty on the Brexit horizon, having soared under the EU’s Single European Sky system over the last two decades.
Among the mass of agreements that Britain will now have to renegotiate are those governing flights between Britain and the rest of the EU.