News and Music Discovery
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

2 Days Before Brexit Summit, U.K.-EU Talks Are Stalled


When Britain voted on Brexit in 2016, advocates for that change said there was no downside. The U.K. would withdraw from the European Union, but the British economy was so big, so vital that Europeans would easily negotiate great terms of trade with the British. That's what Brexit advocates said then. Now, as Prime Minister Theresa May prepares to meet European leaders this week, with time running out, there is a risk of no trade deal at all.

NPR's Frank Langfitt is covering this story in London. Hi there, Frank.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Hey, good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: How is this story evolving?

LANGFITT: Well, it's not going very well. You know, basically there were talks over the weekend. Dominic Raab - he's the Brexit secretary - he flew to Brussels and couldn't come up with a deal. And they're supposed to - Prime Minister May's supposed to fly to Brussels on Wednesday with a hope of kind of working this out. But it's not going very well. And as you and I have discussed many times before, the big sticking point which was never discussed during that referendum you mentioned is the future of a border across Ireland, the island of Ireland.

And neither side wants to see a new border. But there's a great concern that that could happen, and they can't agree on how to work it out. Basically what Prime Minister May would like to do is stay in a customs union with the United Kingdom - I mean with the EU for a limited time. The EU doesn't want that. They're afraid - they want a guarantee there'll be no border. And basically the talks are at a stalemate.

INSKEEP: So what they've gotten to is some way to somewhat extend free trade between Britain and the European Union.

LANGFITT: Exactly. What they're really doing, Steve, is frankly, honestly kicking the can down the road because this is such a difficult problem to solve.

INSKEEP: Although you also noted that even that proposal is not something the Europeans are eager to grab onto.

LANGFITT: No, they're not. And actually, here's the big problem for Prime Minister May. Even many members of her party don't like the idea either. If you go back to what you were talking about earlier, Brexiteers - they sold this to people in the United Kingdom as it was going to be a brave, new trading future for the United Kingdom. They were going to cut all these new deals with new - with other countries like the United States. In fact, if they stay inside a customs arrangement for a long time, that actually would tie their hands, they say. They would be still tethered to the European Union, and they wouldn't be able to cut these new deals that they say and they insist would be really good for the U.K. economy.

INSKEEP: Well, are there Brexiteers then saying, OK, fine, great, let's just walk away from the European Union with no agreement at all, which means we end up with a hard border in Ireland and no real relationship with the Europeans; everything has to be started over from scratch?

LANGFITT: There are Brexiteers who say that - and even Prime Minister May has said in the past no deal is better than a bad deal. And what's happening is we're running out of time here. It is possible that there could be other negotiations in November and December, but I think the European Union's patience is thinning. And the difficulty for Prime Minister May is even if she can get a deal with the European Union, can she get it through her own parliament? There's going to be a Cabinet meeting tomorrow where it's going to be probably pretty fractious. And there's a rising risk that there would be no deal between the two. And what that would mean certainly to the U.K. economy, many economists say, would be very bad, walking away from this enormous market across the English Channel.

INSKEEP: OK, so Prime Minister May meets tomorrow with her Cabinet. And then what happens the next day?

LANGFITT: Well, now we have to see if she'll even fly to Brussels. She's supposed to fly to Brussels. But if there haven't been any further talks, no further negotiations, no progress, what's the point of her going? She actually flew to Salzburg - this was about a month ago - and actually she felt was humiliated by the European Union. They didn't like the deal she was offering and kind of sent her on her way. She's not going to risk that again. So we're at a stalemate, and time is running out. Remember; at the end of March, the United Kingdom is set to leave the European Union. And there's not a lot of time left to work this out.

INSKEEP: Frank, always a pleasure talking with you. Thanks.

LANGFITT: Happy to do it, Steve.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Frank Langfitt in London. 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.