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Debate Over How The U.K. Should Leave The EU Continues 2 Years After Vote


It's been more than two years since Britons voted to quit the European Union. But the debate about how to leave is still going on even within the ruling Conservative Party. Prime Minister Theresa May's plan for Brexit has already been rejected by the EU. And this morning, her former foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, also attacked it.


BORIS JOHNSON: That is not pragmatic. That is not a compromise. It is dangerous and unstable politically and economically. My fellow Conservatives, this is not democracy. That is not what we voted for.

CHANG: Johnson was speaking at the Conservative Party Convention in Birmingham, England. And that is where NPR's Frank Langfitt filed this story.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: The energy in this meeting isn't really here in the city's International Convention Center, where the party's leaders are speaking upstairs in a symphony hall, but at what are called fringe events like this populist one nearby where John Longworth kicked things off.


JOHN LONGWORTH: Welcome, Brexiteers. I want you to make a big noise today not least because we want those people down the road in the ICC to hear you here and hear that leave means leave.


LANGFITT: Longworth chairs Leave Means Leave, a group dedicated to a swift exit from the EU. It also opposes what it sees as Prime Minister Theresa May's attempt to keep one foot inside the European Union. I met June Mummery at a packed Leave Means Leave event last night.

JUNE MUMMERY: I want a hard Brexit, an extremely hard Brexit. I personally would like to come out with no deal.

LANGFITT: Many economists say just walking away from the EU's market of more than 500 million consumers would do serious damage to the U.K. economy. But Mummery, who's managing director of a fish auction company on England's east coast, says the sooner the U.K. leaves, the faster English fishermen can reclaim exclusive rights to their traditional fishing grounds.

MUMMERY: The EU has taken the majority of our fish. We want it back. We want full control of our waters and the fish within them. What we could be dealing with now is someone like Donald Trump.

LANGFITT: Most Britons don't like the American president, but his economic nationalism resonates with some Brexiteers who admire his willingness to attack free trade deals that hurt workers at home.

MUMMERY: We need someone like him. We need someone who wants to protect their country and the people, not just their own careers. Unfortunately, my prime minister, who I did have a lot of respect for, has backtracked on so many things. She worries me.

LANGFITT: Not everyone here is down on the beleaguered Theresa May.

CAMERON BROWN: Personally, I am a massive fan of the prime minister. And I hope that she stays on for as long as possible.

LANGFITT: Cameron Brown is a law student at the University of Chester outside of Liverpool. He appreciates that May is trying to find a middle ground, keeping some economic benefits of EU membership while taking back political power from bureaucrats in Brussels, as the old criticism here goes.

BROWN: We like the European Union in terms of its economic policy. We like the freedom of goods moving across borders with frictionless trade. But we don't like the political institutions of the EU.

LANGFITT: But EU leaders say you can't quit the club and still cherry-pick benefits. They told the prime minister this last month at a meeting in Austria and sent her back to the drawing board. Even though the EU has made its position known for weeks, some Britons were insulted, including Joshua Broadhurst, another student here who attends the University of York.

JOSHUA BROADHURST: Their treatment of the prime minister at Salzburg was absolutely disgraceful. And frankly, it's actually helped, in a way, unite different parts of the Conservative Party because of how she was treated.

LANGFITT: Unite them in what way? Because they still actually don't agree on some things.

BROADHURST: Well, we don't agree, but I think we've united in outrage at the EU.

LANGFITT: Perhaps, but outrage isn't a policy, which is what Prime Minister May still needs to come up with later this month to meet an EU deadline if she still hopes to avoid crashing out of the European Union and the economic pain that comes with it. Frank Langfitt, NPR News, Birmingham.

(SOUNDBITE OF DELIA GONZALEZ'S "ROULETTE") 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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