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As Clock Ticks, Brexit Negotiations Continue Between EU And U.K.


When people went to sleep last night in the United Kingdom, there were signs a Brexit withdrawal agreement between Britain and the European Union was imminent. Then, like so many other times before, hope for a deal has now faded. The EU is scheduled to hold a summit beginning tomorrow. But as of now, there is no deal to ratify, and there's a deadline for the U.K. to leave the EU coming up at the end of this month. NPR's Frank Langfitt is covering it all from London and joins us now. Good morning, Frank.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: And good morning, Rachel.

MARTIN: OK. So as I noted, there were these reports last night of the outline, the contours of a deal.


MARTIN: What did it look like?

LANGFITT: Well, the idea, as we've talked about before, is how do you avoid a customs post on the border along the island of Ireland? And one solution is what they call basically having a border along the Irish Sea. And the way this would work is let's say you took sugar. You exported it from Great Britain, where I am, which is where England, Scotland, Wales are all located, across the border to Northern Ireland. The importer would pay a customs tax as if it were entering the European Union. If the sugar stays in Northern Ireland, importer would get a rebate. But if it crosses south into Ireland and into the EU, the EU gets to keep the tax money.

MARTIN: All right. But this is the kind of solution the EU has offered up before.


MARTIN: (Laughter) So why...

LANGFITT: (Laughter).

MARTIN: ...Does it keep getting stuck?

LANGFITT: This comes down to British domestic politics. You know, Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his Conservative Party, they don’t have a majority in Parliament, and they’ve had to rely on the Democratic Unionist Party of Northern Ireland, which has 10 votes - 10 very important votes. The Democratic Unionists, they don’t like this idea because, from their perspective, it affectively creates a customs border inside the country, cutting off Northern Ireland from Great Britain. But what they’re asking for right now is an opportunity to actually veto this kind of deal in the future so it doesn’t become the status quo. Well, the EU does not want to give a veto over like this, which would then lead to the hard border, which is possibly a hard border on the island of Ireland, which is what everybody’s been trying to avoid.

MARTIN: Wow. So as we mentioned, the EU floated this idea before, and Theresa May turned it down. So what does it say that Boris Johnson even entertained it?

LANGFITT: Desperation. I think he's desperate for a deal. He has very little leverage with the EU. And he's - of course, he's very worried about the alternative, would - which would be leaving without a deal, which could cause all kinds of economic as well as political damage.

You know, you're right. Theresa May actually told the House of Commons more than a year ago, said that no British prime minister could ever agree to something like this because it would split the country. But it shows that, especially with these deadlines looming, Boris Johnson wants to deliver Brexit. He promised that to his party. He wants to hold on to his job, and he feels this is what he has to do to do that.

MARTIN: So I have asked you this many times before, but what now, Frank?

LANGFITT: Well, you know, I think we'll - we got to see if there is some kind of last-minute deal. And if there is, I think, Rachel, it's going to be some sort of incredibly artfully worded thing that will ignore the reality, which is Northern Ireland ends up in a place that at least the Democratic Unionist Party does not want it to be in. The other option, really, I think that Prime Minister Johnson has is to ask for yet another extension - that would be a fourth extension - just because I think that the costs of trying to do a no-deal Brexit would just be huge for the country economically, as well as for the EU, and politically could be disastrous for Boris Johnson.

MARTIN: All right. NPR's London correspondent Frank Langfitt with the latest twist in the Brexit debate. Frank, thanks. We appreciate it as always.

LANGFITT: Happy to do it, Rachel.

(SOUNDBITE OF MAMMAL HANDS' "BOREAL FOREST") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Frank Langfitt
Frank Langfitt is NPR's London correspondent. He covers the UK and Ireland, as well as the war in Ukraine and its implications in Europe. Langfitt has reported from more than fifty countries and territories around the globe.