Airbus had been a vocal opponent of UK withdrawal from the European Union, long before the referendum that sealed the decision to leave, so its agitation over the absence of a post-Brexit agreement is hardly a surprise.
For an organisation skilled in diplomacy, necessitated by tensions between its French and German power bases, Airbus's latest portent over the consequences of Brexit uncertainty – delivered by its candid Glaswegian chief operating officer – is uncharacteristically frank.
But whether anyone in government really believes that Airbus's rethink of future UK investment would extend to implementing the nuclear option – a manufacturing pull-out, and transfer of its wing work elsewhere – is unclear.
Certainly a number of parliamentarians are sceptical, not least the representative for Airbus's own Filton neighbourhood, Jack Lopresti, who described Airbus's threats as "ridiculous" during a jousting session in the wake of the airframer's statements.
Business secretary Greg Clark adopted a more conciliatory position during the debate, accepting that the government needed to listen to the views of Airbus and other companies, but giving little visibility on the state of negotiations and whether, outside of the wish-list, the aim of a frictionless UK-EU trade regime was realistic.
Airbus's production lines run on a just-in-time concept, with parts arriving only when required. While this has cost and efficiency benefits, the lack of a stockpile means the strategy is vulnerable to supply-chain disruption.
Several countries outside the EU maintain smooth supply to Airbus, but this misses the point. Airbus's apprehension is being stirred not by the presence, or otherwise, of the EU flag on its suppliers' factories, but by the predictability of the situation at the EU border.
The prospect of Airbus taking drastic action to preserve its operational model is not as remote a possibility as some parliamentarians might feel comfortable believing. Airbus has previously indicated that China would be keen to take more wing work, and the airframer's establishment of new final assembly lines – the most recent in Hamburg, a week before its Brexit warning – illustrate the speed with which it can set up high-tech manufacturing stations.
To escape the jaws of a lion, you don't need to run faster than the lion. You only need to run faster than your slowest companion. Airbus's shifting its presence out of the UK would doubtless be expensive. But such a move does not have to be cheap. It only has to be cheaper than Brexit.
Source: Flight International