Chief executive of US giant, Jeff Immelt, says UK’s global relationships are more important than membership of the European Union
The head of GE, the $254bn (£167bn) industrial giant which employs 17,000 people in the UK, has said that it does not matter if the UK remains in the European Union.
Jeff Immelt, chairman and chief executive of the US behemoth, said the UK was an “export country” and that “good relationships around the world” are more important than its place in Europe.
Of the UK’s place in Europe, he said: “As a global investor, it really doesn’t matter. We have a big presence here and we’re a big exporter from here. So it’s important the UK has good relationships around the world, but I don’t really think that its place in the European Union makes that much difference.”
His comments come less than two weeks after Mr Immelt signed a landmark deal with the UK’s export bank, UK Export Finance.
The deal will result in the Government providing up to £8bn of financing to GE’s supply chain, potentially creating up to 1,000 jobs.
Mr Cameron hailed the deal at the time as “a vote of confidence in our economic plan”.
“I am an outsider so I can read what Prime Minister Cameron has to go through,” said Mr Immelt.
“Everybody wants to believe in the promise of a common European market. But nobody should be naive about how hard it is, how complicated it is.
“Anybody who looks at Europe and doesn’t think that there’s always going to be complexities … one of the beauties of Europe is the different nuance between France and the UK and Germany.
“Anyone who thinks it’s really going to be a perfectly homogeneous common market like the US is really mistaken.
“I don’t think that’s ever going to …well it’s certainly not going to happen in my lifetime, I’d hate to say never, but it’s certainly not what we’re counting on,” he said.
Mr Immelt made the intervention in the debate surrounding the UK’s place in Europe as Mr Cameron faces a potentially rocky Conservative Party conference over the issue.
The conference, which in Manchester on Sunday, is likely to see division lines within the party over Europe harden, with questions over Mr Cameron’s apparent failure to date to negotiate any reforms ahead of a referendum expected before 2017.
The GE chief is one of, if not the first international business leaders to say that the UK could survive economically outside the EU.
Those overseas executives who have spoken out – including Nissan’s Carlos Ghosn – have largely been in favour of the UK remaining in Europe.
Mr Immelt joins a number of senior British business leaders – including JCB chairman Lord Bamford – to raise the prospect of a UK exit.
His comments came in a wide-ranging interview coinciding with the company’s latest digital push.
Mr Immelt, who has run GE for 14 years, is transforming the company to become a leader in digital technology in the industrial space, harnessing the data thrown off by the plethora of machines it manufactures.