The idea of a Bavarian woman leading Britain’s bid to exit the European Union could not more ironic.
But after the U.K. Electoral Commission on Wednesday designated the “Vote Leave” group as the official advocate for the British exit, or “Brexit,” campaign in the country’s June 23 referendum, that’s exactly what Gisela Stuart will do.
Ms. Stuart, who moved to Britain in 1974 at the age of 19, is a Labour Party member of parliament for Birmingham-Edgbaston. Together with Justice Minister Michael Gove, a member of the ruling Conservative Party, she co-chairs the Vote Leave campaign.
Born Gisela Gschaider, 60-year-old Ms. Stuart joined parliament in 1997 as part of Tony Blair’s Labour Party revolution. She remained loyal to the former prime minister after most of the country had turned on him over Britain’s involvement in the Iraq War.
In 2002 and 2003, Ms. Stuart even represented the United Kingdom on the committee that drafted the European Union’s new constitution. It was that experience, however, which ultimately soured her view of a united Europe and primed her to become today’s leading voice for a British “Nein” to E.U. membership.
“I am being asked to exercise my once-in-a-generation chance to either endorse a relationship and an institution that show a deep inability to reform or to say this won’t do – we can do better. ”
“The convention brought together a self-selected group of the European political elite, many of whom have their eyes on a career at a European level, which is dependent on more and more integration, and who see national parliaments and governments as an obstacle,” she said at the conclusion of the process.
But it wasn’t until details of Prime Minister David Cameron’s E.U. deal emerged that the MP committed to voting in favor of Britain’s exit.
Once that happened, she seized her moment.
Writing in the U.K.’s Guardian newspaper, Ms. Stuart attacked the deal on all fronts. “I am being asked to exercise my once-in-a-generation chance to either endorse a relationship and an institution that show a deep inability to reform or to say this won’t do – we can do better,” she wrote. “I will vote leave.”
To drum up support for Vote Leave, the MP promises an E.U. exit would reduce the number of immigrants in Britain. She also gives the impression that the country will retain the benefits of the internal E.U. economy without actually being a member.
But a Briton based in Bavaria, Ian Robertson, begs to differ. Mr. Robertson is head of sales and marketing for Munich-based BMW, a large employer both in Ms. Stuart’s original home of Bavaria and her new home of Britain.
“An E.U. exit would significantly burden our trade relations from England to other European countries and the rest of the world,” Mr. Robertson told Handelsblatt in an interview.
The coming referendum is a serious matter for BMW, which owns British brands Mini and Rolls Royce. “We export a majority of our vehicles from Great Britain. More than half of all Mini cars alone go to Europe, which is also an important market for Rolls Royce,” Mr. Robertson said.
As a large employer, investor and exporter in Britain, BMW has played a big role in “the success of the British auto industry over the past decade,” he added.
If Britain leaves the 28-member European Union, it would “introduce a phase of uncertainty, which cannot please us as a long-term investor,” Mr. Robertson said, adding that such an outcome could boost the cost of doing business in Britain and disrupt parts supply.
Because of how much is at stake for the carmaker, Mr. Robertson signed an open letter supporting the campaign for Britain to stay in the European Union.
BMW management also recently wrote an email addressed to “colleagues” in Britain advocating for the country to remain a member.
“The BMW Group believes that the UK is better as a member of the EU than it would be outside it,” the email said.
While Ms. Stuart and other Brexit advocates anticipate a speedy trade agreement with the European Union if their initiative succeeds, Mr. Robertson is not so optimistic.
“I believe Brexit advocates underestimate one point: Leaving the E.U. is not only a rational decision; it invokes a lot of emotions as well – on both sides of the English Channel,” the 57-year-old cautioned.
“If the United Kingdom says goodbye to the E.U., it could become more difficult to lure these specialists to Great Britain.”
The automaker considers its four factories in Great Britain “long-term investments,” he stressed. “But we don’t have just our British employees to think about, rather also those from other countries.”
The four factories employ workers from 30 countries outside of Britain, including many engineering specialists, Mr. Robertson said. “If the United Kingdom says goodbye to the E.U., it could become more difficult to lure these specialists to Great Britain.”
That, in the end, could impact “the size of the workforce,” he said.