Fleet News

Brexit: Zero-tariff deal needed to avoid fleet price increase

This article was first published in the July digital edition of Fleet News.

The Government is being warned a ‘no deal’ Brexit could impact vehicle costs and prove fatal to the wider UK automotive sector.

A recent Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT) survey showed one-in-three automotive employees was still on furlough, with up to one-in-six jobs at risk.

The impact of the coronavirus crisis is being felt across the sector, but jobs could also be threatened by the prospect of a ‘bare bones’ or no-deal Brexit, says the UK automotive trade body.

If the EU and UK do not agree a deal by the end of the year, the UK will leave the EU’s single market and the customs union without any agreement on future access from January 1, 2021.

The SMMT wants a full, zero-tariff deal in place by the end of the transition period to give businesses on both sides the chance to prepare.

Chief executive Mike Hawes said: “Before Covid-19, we expected to produce 1.3 million vehicles this year; the pandemic means we’re already looking at scarcely 900,000.

“A ‘no deal’ Brexit would wreak further long-term damage on the sector. Tariffs would add cost, custom duties and complexity, which would disrupt supply.”

The SMMT suggests a ‘no deal’ scenario could see UK vehicle volumes falling below 850,000 by 2025 – the lowest level since 1953. This would mean a £40 billion cut in revenues, on top of the £33.5bn cost of Covid-19 production losses over the period for UK automotive.

“The industry cannot withstand the shock of a hard Brexit,” explained Hawes.

“Covid-19 has consumed every inch of capability and capacity. There is not the resource, the time nor the clarity to prepare.”

Almost all countries in the world are part of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) which regulates international trade. Should the UK leave the EU without a deal, its trade with the EU will be governed by WTO rules.

When joining the WTO, each country negotiates the maximum tariffs it can set on various types of goods. The tariff charged by the EU on imported cars is 10%.

Leaving without a deal would mean UK-built cars facing a 10% tariff cost and vice versa, says the SMMT’s annual UK Automotive Trade Report.

Tariffs would result in a price increase of almost £3,000 on the average UK exported car to the EU, a £2,000 price increase on UK vans exported to the EU and a price increase of £1,800 on cars and vans imported from the EU, if fully passed on to UK consumers.

The report adds that additional customs duties, costs and complexity would significantly disrupt sourcing of parts and components from the EU.

Executive director, business transformation at Ford of Britain, Graham Hoare, said the manufacturer had implemented measures to ensure product is available for fleets.

He explained: “We’ve brought a lot of cars into the UK and have maintained that availability. That’s really important so we don’t have disruption to our supply chains as the change happens.”

But he warned: “A Free Trade Agreement is necessary for the viability of our business. If you think about all the other changes we’re embarking upon… another burden just makes the activities we’re performing in the UK a little less viable.”


Frictionless trade within the EU has been critical for enabling the UK car industry to develop supply chains that cross EU borders several times.

A separate report, produced by The UK in a Changing Europe on Manufacturing and Brexit, highlights how supply chains have to operate with supreme efficiency, and parts have to be delivered ‘just-in-time’ throughout the day.

As an example, 350 trucks arrive from the EU every day at Honda’s plant in Swindon, bringing in about two million parts. Components arrive from five-24 hours after ordering. The plant is scheduled to close a year from now.

Meanwhile, a typical driveline system produced by GKN, the British-based supplier, incorporates specialist forged parts from the UK, Spain, Italy, France and Germany.

These are assembled at GKN Driveline’s factory in Birmingham and supplied to automotive assemblers in the UK and EU.

The components, assembled drivelines and the final assembled car could cross the English Channel several times, says the report. 

It is a similar story for BMW, which assembles engines at its Hams Hall engine-assembly plant near Birmingham.

Engine blocks come from France and are processed at the plant. They may go to Germany for further work before being assembled.

The engine may go into a Mini assembled in Oxford or the Netherlands, or into a BMW assembled in Germany.

“The final car could be sold anywhere in Europe or globally,” the report says. “This close integration and the need for minimal trade friction becomes even more important as most UK car producers operate on very low profit margins (around £450 on a £15,000 car).”


After a meeting between Prime Minister Boris Johnson and the EU Commission president Ursula von der Leyen last month, both agreed new momentum was needed in negotiations.

Official talks resumed at the start of this month, but ended with the EU’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, saying that “regardless of the outcome” there would be “inevitable changes” from January 1, 2021. The next round of negotiations began last week, with no apparent progress made.

The commission has also told member states and businesses to revisit plans for a ‘no deal’ Brexit.

In a press briefing, prior to the SMMT’s annual International Automotive Summit, Hawes insisted: “We must secure a comprehensive Free Trade Agreement that maintains tariff- and quota-free trade. With such a deal, a strong recovery is possible.”

The UK in a Changing Europe report says the potential danger is that carmakers may simply decide that production in the UK is no longer profitable and shift their assembly plants to the EU.

Many manufacturers with plants in the UK also have plants in the EU to which they could move production. Moreover, many of these plants have spare capacity.

“Such relocations usually happen when new vehicle models are introduced, and the decisions about sites are normally taken at least two years in advance of planned production starts,” it says.


Key companies in the UK automotive sector, that account for the bulk of UK automotive production – Nissan, Jaguar Land Rover (JLR), and Groupe PSA (Vauxhall’s owner) – have all planned new models in the next couple of years.

“There is a real danger they will decide to produce them in the EU, not the UK,” says the report. “This would have a knock-on effect on other industries in the UK.”

UK steel, for example, despite not being subject to tariffs itself, would suffer because the car industry would contract, reducing demand for steel.

“Manufacturing matters,” said Professor David Bailey, senior fellow of UK in a Changing Europe.

“Much of the sector has already taken a hit through the Covid-19 pandemic and Brexit risks further disruption for manufacturers which they are keen to minimise.

“A no-trade deal is seen as the worst-case scenario for sectors like automotive given the impact of tariffs. But even a minimal Free Trade Agreement could bring disruption for manufacturers, for example via its impact on supply chains and in terms of regulatory divergence. Whatever the form of Brexit at the end of the transition period, manufacturing faces multiple challenges.”

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