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Talks On Future Trade Relations Are A Pivotal Moment In Brexit Process


In some significant news from Brussels this morning, European leaders, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron of France, are gathered there. And they have decided that the EU will start discussing a future trade relationship with Britain. This is a pivotal moment in the U.K.'s long and fraught Brexit process. And NPR's Frank Langfitt is in Brussels following this. Hi, Frank.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Hey. Good morning, David.

GREENE: OK. So I know this is just giving the green light to start talking and negotiating. But what does this mean, and why did the EU approve this?

LANGFITT: Well, it's a big deal for the United Kingdom because they voted - people there voted 18 months ago to leave - the Brexit vote. And now the United Kingdom comes back here. And the economy's not doing that well in the U.K. And they want a new trade deal. And they want it as quickly as they can get it.

And the EU is willing to agree to it in part because the U.K. basically agreed to pay $50 billion as a divorce settlement from the European Union and also agreed not to put a new border between Northern Ireland, which is part of the U.K., and the Republic of Ireland, which is an independent country and part of the EU. So the EU basically got what it wanted and now is saying, OK, we'll let you - we'll start talking with you again.

GREENE: OK. So it sounds like this was really important for the U.K. to do this if they were giving up on so much.

LANGFITT: It has dominated - it has dominated news and conversation in the U.K. now for many, many months.

GREENE: So where do we go from here? What's the next step?

LANGFITT: Well, the next step is really interesting. The - Donald Tusk's the head over there at the at the council. And he said, you know - he said congratulations to Prime Minister Theresa May - this has been bitterly fought at times - and also said, you know, the U.K., you have three months to go back and kind of get your act together. Figure out exactly what kind of a new deal you want. And that's very important because there's been a lot of political disarray in this over Brexit in the United Kingdom, a lot of back and forth. In fact, recently, just a couple of days ago, there was a rebellion in the Tory Party - Prime Minister Theresa May. And it got so nasty in the newspapers that someone actually made a death threat against one of the...

GREENE: Oh, my.

LANGFITT: ...One of the members of Parliament. Yeah. So it's - this is very intense. And so now Theresa May goes back home to London, and she starts to formulate what her, you know, what her offer is, what she wants from the EU.

GREENE: Well, so, Frank, I mean, what are these negotiations like? Is this like two countries who are going to act like they never knew each other starting from scratch to build a trading relationship. Or what happens here?

LANGFITT: No, they - well, that - they do know each other extremely well. The U.K.'s been in the EU for many, many years. But what's going to happen is this. The U.K. is going to come back. And they're going to kind of say, you know that deal we had before? We loved that deal. We just don't want to have migrants coming here to the U.K. any more. And so give us the best possible deal. The EU is going to say, that's not how a club works. And, in fact, the EU is expected to drive a very hard bargain. And the EU fact - in fact, seems very much in the driver's seat.

It's - the economy of the European Union is massive - over 500 million consumers. And the sense is that they're going to drive a very hard bargain. One reason to do that, as well, is they certainly want people to appreciate the value of being in the EU. And they're not going to let some member just cherry pick a deal because others, then, would want to.

GREENE: And, Frank, it doesn't sound like you're inside a building with meetings going on. Where are you, exactly?

LANGFITT: No, I'm not. I'm actually right outside the council building. And the reason I'm standing here is there's this really interesting mural that says, the future is Europe. It's a five-storey mural with birds. And I - what struck me about it is there's been a real shift in optimism here. You know, after the Brexit vote, the Trump election, people here were very depressed. They were worried that the EU might actually break up and fall apart. And the United Kingdom has had its problems. And other right-wing populists haven't done well in Europe in elections. And there's a sense of much more optimism and confidence here than there was even 12 months ago.

GREENE: NPR's Frank Langfitt reporting from Brussels. Frank, thanks as always. We appreciate it.

LANGFITT: Happy to do it, David. 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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