Japanese billionaire Tadashi Yanai has become the latest business leader to warn that Brexit is “practically impossible” and would return the U.K. to being “the sick man of Europe.”
In an interview with CNN, the founder and CEO of the Fast Retailing empire, which includes Uniqlo, became the latest billionaire to voice concern over Brexit and business continuity. He told the TV news channel that “If Brexit does happen, the U.K. could revert back to the former situation before the Margaret Thatcher era,” an era that lasted through much of the 1970s, characterized by economic malaise.
“The U.K. was referred to as the sick man of Europe. I’m afraid that could happen again,” said Yanai. On the specifics of the U.K.’s Brexit plight he said, “Brexit is practically impossible because the old borders will be shaky, and the U.K. has a Northern Ireland issue and a Scotland issue. … I think Brexit is difficult to realize even if the U.K. wants to do it.”
Yanai, 70, is the founder of the Tokyo-listed Fast Retailing. He and his family own a 44% stake, putting their estimated net worth at over $30 billion, and Yanai remains the richest man in Japan.
Yanai’s flagship brand Uniqlo has struggled in the U.K. over the last few years. Although 13 stores remain, its ambitious expansion plans in the early 2000s were rapidly reversed in 2003 leading to the closure of 16 units.
On September 3, Fast Retailing announced that same-store sales at its Uniqlo clothing outlets in Japan rose 9.9% in August from a year earlier. And although sales in Asia remain strong, U.S. expansion is on hold after Yanai shelved a 2012 goal to open 1,000 Uniqlo stores in the U.S.—it currently has 50.
The warning from Japan’s richest man comes as British trade minister Liz Truss visited Tokyo to strengthen ties as the U.K. nears the Halloween deadline for leaving the E.U.
Despite Brexit, Japan remains one of Britain’s biggest foreign investors, said by the government to be worth $37 billion (£29.5 billion) last year, with 1,000 Japanese firms based in Britain employing more than 150,000 people.
Signalling her intent to land a U.K. Japan trade deal, Truss said yesterday: “Businesses should be reassured that there is huge political will on both sides to begin negotiating a new free trade agreement with Japan as soon as possible.”