With 6 Weeks Till Brexit, It's Unclear How The U.K. Will Leave the E.U.

Feb 15, 2019
Originally published on February 15, 2019 9:42 pm
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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Goods are being stockpiled, cargo planes secured and the nation's spy chief is reportedly in talks to extend his term. This is just some of what is happening in Britain where it is now six weeks and counting to Brexit. Right now, it is not at all clear how Britain will leave the European Union. For the latest, we're joined by NPR's Frank Langfitt who is in London. Hey, Frank.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Hi, Mary Louise.

KELLY: So it seems every time you and I have talked, for months now, we discuss the possibility that Britain might crash out of the EU without a deal. That used to seem like a really remote possibility. Today, not so much.

LANGFITT: And businesses are taking it really seriously, Mary Louise. There's a lot of stockpiling of goods in case there are big border delays - you know, big backups at the ports because of customs checks, tariffs, things like that. I was talking to a CEO at a transport company. And he said if you can find space right now in warehouses, you're going to pay a premium for it. Companies are also looking at cargo planes. I know a transport company that just bought a helicopter. The idea is to be able to get across the water and just not even use the ports at all. The government has also reportedly asked Alex Younger - he's the head of MI6, the U.K. intelligence network - to actually stay well on after his retirement date in November. And that's not about a deal or no deal but just the need for continuity at a time of great uncertainty and great change.

KELLY: Why introduce more chaos when there's already so much up the pole?

LANGFITT: Exactly.

KELLY: Yeah.

LANGFITT: And I think the big question is, as you were asking, will the U.K. crash out? There are some signs that the prime minister might be bluffing on this. This week, the prime minister's chief Brexit negotiator Olly Robbins - he was overheard in a Brussels bar suggesting that the U.K. would not leave without a deal. And that's seen, probably, as a negotiating tactic to try to scare Parliament into backing her withdrawal agreement.

KELLY: Speaking of Parliament, the Prime Minister Theresa May suffered yet another defeat there yesterday. What happened?

LANGFITT: Basically what happened is it was a vote on whether to support her plan to return to Brussels to try to get concessions on her Brexit withdrawal agreement. The vote was nonbinding. It has no legal force, but it's another embarrassment. Labor opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn - he said this was another sign that the prime minister's Brexit policy is just in disarray.

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JEREMY CORBYN: The government cannot keep on ignoring Parliament or ploughing on towards the 29 of March without a coherent plan.

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CORBYN: She cannot keep on just running down the clock and hoping that something will turn up that will save her day and save her face.

KELLY: Frank, as you said, this latest defeat for Theresa May yesterday carries no legal force. It's nonbinding, but it's awfully telling as, again, the clock is at six weeks and counting.

LANGFITT: Yeah. And what it really shows, Mary Louise, is that the prime minister here can't even control her own conservative party. And officials in Brussels - they already don't have much confidence in her ability to get legislation through Parliament. And after yesterday's defeat, they're going to have even less.

KELLY: I'm struck watching from this side of the pond by what seems a remarkable lack of urgency. With all of this happening so quickly, where does the prime minister go from here?

LANGFITT: Within the next few days, she's expected to go back to Brussels. She's going to be asking for changes to that withdrawal agreement that she made with the EU. And what she wants to avoid is the U.K. getting stuck inside an EU customs arrangement, perhaps, forever. That's the biggest concern here in the United Kingdom. Brussels is not expected to give her much of anything. And then she has to come back to the House of Commons on February 27 to update them on where she is. Now, she could face more attempts to stop her from taking the U.K. out of the EU with no deal or even try to delay Brexit. But, you know, even if the U.K. wants to delay Brexit, she has to get all 27 EU countries to agree to that. And they're really not in the mood to bail her out. The EU will still want to see some kind of concrete plan on how to resolve all this.

KELLY: NPR London correspondent Frank Langfitt reporting from London where the clock is ticking towards Brexit. The deadline's the end of next month. Thank you, Frank.

LANGFITT: Happy to do it, Mary Louise. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.