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Brexit Vote Comes With Risks For English City Home To Nissan Plant


This year, millions of people from northern England to American Midwest voted against globalization, but as the English city of Sunderland recently experienced, voting against free trade comes with risks. After Sunderland went for Brexit last summer, the city's biggest private employer, Nissan, threatened to stop investing there. NPR's Frank Langfitt has the story.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: This was the scene in June when Sunderland's vote tally on Brexit was announced.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: The total number of votes cast in favor of leave was 82,000.


LANGFITT: More than 60 percent of voters in Sunderland backed leaving the European Union, but as they celebrated, Brian Manning worried. Manning's vice president of the North East England Chamber of Commerce.

BRIAN MANNING: I watch people cheering, and I thought meself (ph), careful what you wish for.

LANGFITT: Sunderland is part of England's industrial heartland - think Michigan or Ohio in the U.S. - so when Nissan first opened a plant here in the mid-'80s, it was a big deal. Nissan chose the U.K. because of its membership in the EU, which allowed the export of cars to Europe tariff-free. Koji Tsuruoka, Japan's ambassador to the U.K., explains.

LANGFITT: Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was telling the Japanese investors that U.K. is the best gateway to Europe.

LANGFITT: Today, Nissan and its network of suppliers employ around 30,000 people. The company dominates the economy of this city on the North Sea.

KOJI TSURUOKA: Nowadays, they build half a million car a year.

LANGFITT: In voting for Brexit, though, the people of Sunderland did something extraordinary. They put Nissan's business in their local economy in jeopardy.

DENISE WALTER: It caused us sleepless nights. It really did. We were depressed for weeks.

LANGFITT: Denise Walter's a committee member of the Philadelphia Cricket Club here, where some Nissan workers hang out. She saw the Brexit vote as a self-inflicted wound this old industrial city couldn't afford.

WALTER: This is an area that has really struggled in recent times. When it was a Tory government, that brought about the closure of the mines. We lost our shipbuilding.

LANGFITT: Were you afraid that it was just going to be another industry that left?

WALTER: Absolutely. Our local councils have worked very hard trying to bring initiatives like this to the northeast and trying to put the northeast on the map. And this was just throwing everything away.

LANGFITT: Even people who relied on Nissan for their livelihoods voted for Brexit, like Bailey Baker's dad. Bailey's a law student at the local university. I met him one afternoon when he was playing Ping-Pong on campus. Bailey's father, Derek, works for an auto parts company that supplies Nissan, but he voted for Brexit because he wanted Britain to tighten its borders. Bailey Baker explains.

BAILEY BAKER: If it's a blunt way to put it, people in Sunderland don't like immigration. They see it as a massive swarm.

LANGFITT: Did you realize that he could have been voting himself indirectly out of a job?

BAKER: Yeah. That's exactly what I told him, so he must have knew. But the reason me (ph) dad wasn't too bothered about voting leave was that Nissan will never leave. They've invested so much into the plant already.

LANGFITT: When Nissan came out...


LANGFITT: ...And said, hey, you know, something - no more investment unless we get some guarantees - would your father really confident, or did he get a little worried? What'd he say?

BAKER: (Laughter) We didn't speak for a couple of days actually (laughter) 'cause I brought that up for him, and I just said, I told you so, Dad.

LANGFITT: Derek Baker declined to speak to NPR. Economists are concerned the Brexit vote could do damage beyond Nissan. Brian Snowdon, who teaches economics at nearby Durham University, thinks it could scare off other companies.

BRIAN SNOWDON: I worry about the attractiveness of any further foreign direct investment into a place like Sunderland if we're outside of the European Union.

LANGFITT: And even though in actual Brexit is more than two years away, Ramon Pacheco Pardo's says the U.K. is already paying a price. Pacheco Pardo is a senior lecturer at King's College London.

RAMON PACHECO PARDO: Some companies have decided not to take the risk to wait. They have already started to either close all operations, move jobs to other countries in the European Union. So I think the manufacturing sector, banking sector - I think there are going to be many job losses.

LANGFITT: After several weeks of gloom, Sunderland received a reprieve this fall. The U.K. government told Nissan it would ensure its operations here remain competitive after Brexit. And Nissan agreed to put two new models in the Sunderland plant. That was a relief to former mayor Les Scott, but he still worried.

LES SCOTT: The decline of Nissan would have made the closure of the shipyards and the closure of the mines look as though there was a corner shop closing. That's how important Nissan has become to Sunderland employment. And that's why I think a lot of people in the city are still concerned.

LANGFITT: With Brexit expected to play out over years and the details still a mystery, Les Scott says no one in Sunderland knows quite what to expect. Frank Langfitt, NPR News, Sunderland. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Frank Langfitt is NPR's London correspondent. He covers the UK and Ireland, as well as stories elsewhere in Europe.
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