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The President of the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT), Tony Walker, recently urged government not to undermine the UK automotive industry’s hard won competitiveness due to slow progress on Brexit. Speaking at the Society’s 101st Annual Dinner in London, he said there is no substitute for free and frictionless trade, and called for quicker progress on agreeing a transition period following Brexit.

Addressing more than 1,100 industry leaders, government representatives and other stakeholders, the President said that while the Prime Minister has embraced the need for a period of transition to avoid a post-Brexit cliff edge, “we need to see concrete progress – and quickly.” This transition, he added, “should be on the current terms and, crucially, not time-limited” to give industry time to adjust and secure long-term investment decisions. He continued, “We will never stop striving to be competitive. But we ask government to help provide the conditions in which we can compete. Like every other industry, we need certainty now.”

Praising the sector for its transformation over the past 25 years, Tony Walker said, “As an industry we are strong, resilient, and innovative. Not fearful of the future but keen to grasp the opportunities we are creating together. I am very proud that today our UK automotive industry competes globally on quality, productivity, flexibility and cost. We have delivered an export-led renaissance. But we are not complacent. Competitiveness comes hard-won. It can be easily lost. A hard Brexit would undermine all that we have collectively achieved. It is a real threat – a hurdle we cannot ignore.”

He stated that the lack of progress over Brexit was already having an impact on the automotive sector: “We have huge challenges. Consumer confidence has fallen leading to a downturn in sales. Uncertainty about Brexit – and market confusion over diesel – are taking their toll.”

Walker said, “After all the difficulties we have overcome, all the changes we have made and the innovations we have brought, we do not need trade barriers to be our next challenge. We are an industry with the character to overcome major obstacles. And we are working hard to maintain our competitiveness. But don’t test our character unnecessarily.” He added, “In the last forty years we have succeeded. We have torn down so many barriers. Please don’t allow new ones to be erected.”

He spoke as SMMT released new figures illustrating the high stakes of a no deal Brexit for the sector. The risk comes not just from costly WTO tariffs – which would add at least £4.5 billion to the industry’s annual overheads – but also from the imposition of customs checks, red tape and fees on goods that currently move friction free across borders.