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European Leaders Talk Brexit In Austria

Sep 19, 2018
Originally published on September 19, 2018 8:53 am
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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Prime Minister Theresa May issued an ultimatum to Parliament this week. Back my plan to leave the EU or we will leave with no deal, which would be very bad. Today, European Union leaders will convene in Austria to discuss Britain's next steps. NPR's Frank Langfitt is following it all from London and joins us now. Hey, Frank.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Hey, Rachel.

MARTIN: What does Theresa May want to happen?

LANGFITT: Well, what she is saying is she wants to be able for the U.K. to leave the European Union but still trade goods seamlessly with the EU - no tariffs, no customs checks, things like that. And the big reason is she wants to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland. That's been open and peaceful for many, many years. The fear is there could be a return to violence from the age - years of the Troubles. And a hard border would really make people in Ireland very, very angry because right now it's wide open and it's very convenient.

MARTIN: So is the EU - are they keen on her plan?

LANGFITT: No (laughter). No. And they've been saying this for month after month. They say - not month after month but the last couple of months since she's sprung it out there, they've said no, this isn't going to work, which has also made this threat from Theresa May seem a little bit hollow. And what the EU is saying is you can't quit our club and still have the benefits. This isn't, of course, how clubs work. Here's Jean-Claude Juncker. He's the head of the European Commission. Here's how he put it in Strassburg earlier this week.

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JEAN-CLAUDE JUNCKER: Someone who leaves the Union cannot be in the same privileged position as a member state. If you leave the Union, you are, of course, no longer part of our single market.

MARTIN: And at the same time, she's having a hard time selling this to her own Parliament, right?

LANGFITT: Extremely hard. So basically, the EU doesn't like what she's offering, and Parliament is deeply divided over it as well. And it's not clear that they're going to go for this at all. Right now, it's really fascinating, Rachel. The Conservative Party, the ruling party, Theresa May's party and the opposition Labour Party are really split on Brexit, as are - the population is as well. And you have these civil wars going on inside the parties not unlike some of the disputes we see inside the Democratic and the Republican parties in the United States. People in the Labour Party, some of the folks there, the members of Parliament can't stand Jeremy Corbyn because he's a socialist. And I was talking to professors at the London School of Economics earlier this week, and they were saying that the political landscape right now in the United Kingdom is the most fractured they've seen probably since World War II.

MARTIN: So part of how May is trying to get this through is to convince Parliament that you either pass...

LANGFITT: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...My plan or it's Armageddon. So is she right? I mean, it won't be the end of the world as we know it. But what is the worst-case scenario?

LANGFITT: I mean, they are planning for what they call a no-deal Brexit, which is literally walking away from a market - a single market of more than half a billion consumers, which is stunning to do. Economists paint a very gloomy picture if that happens - shrinking growth, a falling currency. I was talking to a woman named Meredith Crowley yesterday. She teaches international economics at Cambridge University. Here's what she said.

MEREDITH CROWLEY: The big problem will be the EU will be forced to impose tariffs on some things and things that are quite important to the U.K. economy, like, automobiles and auto parts. It shouldn't be seen as a solution because a no-deal Brexit will be very damaging to British exports. It will be very harmful to British consumers.

LANGFITT: And she also said that a quarter of U.K. exports to the EU would be hit with high tariffs, about 10 percent or more, at the end of March if they bomb out of the market.

MARTIN: And there is some urgency here, right? They have to meet a deadline.

LANGFITT: Yeah. No expectation of any decisions this week, but the EU wants an answer in November and still no solution as to how to avoid a new border on the island of Ireland.

MARTIN: NPR's Frank Langfitt reporting from London on the latest Brexit talks. Thanks so much, Frank.

LANGFITT: Happy to do it, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.