British Prime Minister Theresa May Outlines Plan To Leave European Union

Jan 17, 2017
Originally published on January 17, 2017 6:28 pm
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KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

The United Kingdom is headed for a clean split from the European Union. That was the message in London today as British Prime Minister Theresa May began to spell out just what Brexit will look like.

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THERESA MAY: Not partial membership of the European Union or anything that leaves us half in, half out. No, the United Kingdom is leaving the European Union.

MCEVERS: May's speech ended months of uncertainty over the terms under which Britain wants to exit the EU. It is also a sharp departure from the gospel of globalization, open borders and free trade. NPR's Frank Langfitt reports from London.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Prime Minister May made it clear that taking control of the country's borders was worth the risk of short-term damage to the U.K. economy. May was responding to Brexit voters who said immigration was costing British people jobs and eroding national identity.

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MAY: Britain is an open and tolerant country, but the message from the public before and during the referendum campaign was clear. Brexit must mean control of the number of people who come to Britain from Europe, and that is what we will deliver.

LANGFITT: May insisted she didn't want Britain's exit to undermine the trading bloc which has supported peace and prosperity in Europe for decades.

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MAY: It remains overwhelmingly and compellingly in Britain's national interest that the EU should succeed.

LANGFITT: And she warned EU countries not to take vengeance on Britain for pulling out.

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MAY: Yet I know there are some voices calling for a punitive deal that punishes Britain. That would be an act of calamitous self-harm for the countries of Europe, and it would not be the act of a friend.

LANGFITT: Currency markets seem to like May's clarity on Brexit. The British pound, which has taken a beating since the June Brexit vote, made a small rebound. Research fellow Rem Korteweg said the EU would also welcome May's clear terms.

Korteweg works for the Center for European Reform, a London think tank. He thought the prime minister's mix of friendly and threatening tones reflected the awkwardness as well as the contentious negotiations ahead. Korteweg spoke on Skype from Brussels, the de facto capital of the EU.

REM KORTEWEG: Very much this is like a 40-year-old marriage that is being unraveled. The challenge will be to allow it to unravel in a as-moderate and as-frictionless way as possible.

LANGFITT: May's speech adds to the growing uncertainty about the global economic order, especially with Donald Trump, a free trade critic, preparing to become president of the U.S. later this week. Again, Rem Korteweg...

KORTEWEG: You have two countries which used to lead, really were the vanguard of free trade, and there are question marks above both of them. And so I think it's relevant to ask this question. Well, where does free trade go from here?

LANGFITT: For Theresa May, the answer is a new free trade deal between the U.K. and the EU, which she wants to cut while negotiating Brexit. Analysts say that is wildly ambitious, and the U.K. is certain to come out worse off than it is now.

MUJTABA RAHMAN: The agreement Theresa May negotiates is going to be a lot less beneficial than the status quo.

LANGFITT: Mujtaba Rahman works for Eurasia Group, which analyzes global politics. He says in negotiating a new trade deal, May will have to choose which sectors of the U.K. economy get tariff-free access to the EU single market and which don't.

RAHMAN: And now the government I think will have to move into a position of picking winners, choosing losers. I think this will make investors nervous.

LANGFITT: And to ensure the best outcome, Rahman says, Prime Minister May will have to make sure she maintains European good will. Frank Langfitt, NPR News, London. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.