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U.K. Makes Progress In Brexit Plans


The United Kingdom has convinced the European Union to move ahead with talks on a future trade relationship. That agreement could be a turning point in the biggest divorce in the global economy. But as NPR's Frank Langfitt reports from Brussels, Britain is not over all of the hurdles.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Last summer, Liam Fox, the British government's head of international trade, made a bold prediction in an interview with the BBC.


LIAM FOX: If you think about it, you know, the free trade agreement that we will have to come to with the European Union should be one of the easiest in human history.

LANGFITT: Here in Brussels, home of the European Union, they expect negotiations to be quite different.

ERIK VAN DER MAREL: Tough - I mean, I think it's going to be a difficult one.

LANGFITT: Erik van der Marel is senior economist with the European Centre for International Political Economy.

VAN DER MAREL: The U.K. really needs to choose what it wants. And, I mean, so far, what I see and what I read is that they want to have a frictionless sort of agreement or partnership.

LANGFITT: And Van der Marel says that's highly unlikely. The EU only provide such benefits to countries that allow the free flow of people. British voted for Brexit to slow immigration. Some British industries, such as finance and auto manufacturing, have talked about seeking special exceptions, so they can continue to trade seamlessly inside the EU. Van der Marel is skeptical about that, too.

VAN DER MAREL: I think it's up to the EU to decide whether it really allows for that kind of cherry picking because that could set a precedent for other countries, of course. And why is it in the interests of the EU to be so kind, if I can say this?

LANGFITT: Why, indeed? The European Union has the leverage in these negotiations. Its economy dwarfs that of the United Kingdom, which is the world's sixth-largest. Again, Erik van der Marel.

VAN DER MAREL: I mean, the U.K.'s share of export and imports to the EU is much higher than the share of import and exports from the EU to the U.K. U.K. are just a lot more people living in the EU than in the UK.

LANGFITT: A united European Union in the driver's seat and a divided United Kingdom as supplicant - that's not exactly what people expected when the British voted to leave the EU last year. At the time, many in the EU were worried it would fall apart. And Andre Sapir says officials in many of the EU's remaining 27 nations thought the U.K. government would be a formidable negotiating partner. Sapir teaches economics at the Free University of Brussels.

ANDRE SAPIR: The view was that it would be very hard to keep the 27 focused on one line, while the U.K. - they would be going around the national capitals and dividing them.

LANGFITT: But Prime Minister Theresa May's Tory party were too busy fighting amongst themselves over what kind of Brexit they wanted to divide the 27 EU states. Then May called an election last June to strengthen her hand in Brexit, only to lose her parliamentary majority.

SAPIR: We are entering into this phase of negotiation with this situation where the U.K. is somewhat in disarray, while the 27 are onboard with the common position.

LANGFITT: After months of arguing, Prime Minister May's Tory Party still hasn't come up with a clear vision for a future trade relationship. Time is running short. The U.K. is scheduled to leave the European Union in 2019. Frank Langfitt, NPR News, Brussels. 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.
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