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Brexit fears fail to trouble Airbus space business in the UK

While the long-term future of Airbus wing manufacturing in the UK may hang in the balance of Brexit, bosses at the company's UK Defence & Space unit are more sanguine about their prospects outside the EU.

UK Defence & Space chief executive Colin Paynter says Airbus Group head Tom Enders' recent warning that Brexit could force Airbus to move its commercial aircraft wing building business out of the UK was absolutely "correct and I would echo that", but tells FlightGlobal that his operation could better weather the storm of divorce.

Speaking at the company's space hardware site at Stevenage, just north of London, to unveil the rover built there for the 2020 joint European and Russian ExoMars mission, Paynter said Defence & Space follows the same operating model as the other divisions. This, he says, relies on moving "parts, people and ideas" between European locations without restrictions.

However, he says: "We are more of a project company than a product company [like Airbus commercial aircraft] and the volume we move is less, so we can mitigate" any frictions in the future.

Airbus in the UK has yet to see its European citizens leaving to take up opportunities on the continent, he adds. Across the company as a whole there are about 500 European nationals working in the UK and 1,200 UK nationals at Airbus sites in Europe and, so far, there has been no difficulty encouraging talent to move to the UK.

However, Paynter adds, uncertainty prevails. "We wait for the new [immigration] rules to emerge."

Regardless, he does not expect Brexit to have much impact on the UK defence business. Space, however, will be subject to UK-EU discussions. Paynter stresses that the distinction between the Galileo satellite navigation system – where the bloc's rules specifically limit participation in the most sensitive aspects to EU member states – and European Space Agency-led programmes like ExoMars (exploration) and Copernicus (Earth observation), which are open to participation by all ESA members, including those who are not members of the EU.

Not related to Brexit is a long-running discussion between the European Commission and ESA over leadership of a nascent European space programme, which would add defence and security functions to the largely civil and scientific programmes delivered by ESA.

One probable outcome is a clarification of roles, which would see the Commission take clear overall responsibility for space – as envisioned by the Lisbon Treaty, which defines the scope of EU jurisdiction with ESA working essentially as an executive agency.

Whether Europe's future in space complicates relations with countries like the UK, which may belong to ESA but not the EU, remains to be seen. Paynter declines to speculate but notes that most projects have long enough gestation periods to accommodate UK-EU discussion.

ESA director general Jan Woerner, meanwhile, is calling for companies like Airbus to remain in the UK. ESA rules, he says, are very clear about project workshare matching national contribution by member states: "So I say don't leave the UK!"

Paynter and Woerner were joined at Stevenage by British ESA astronaut Tim Peake and UK minister of state for universities and science Chris Skidmore to reveal the name for the six-wheeled Mars rover being designed and built at the site.

Thousands of suggestions from around Europe were sifted to select "Rosalind" – after Rosalind Franklin, the British scientist whose work underpinned our understanding of that building block of life, DNA. This is fitting, as the rover's principle mission on Mars will be to drill deep below the surface to deliver pristine soil samples to an exotic onboard molecular laboratory designed to answer the question: has there ever been life on Mars?

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