British Prime Minister Triggers U.K.'s Exit From European Union

Mar 29, 2017
Originally published on March 29, 2017 11:56 pm
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KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

The United Kingdom has started the process of Brexit.

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PRIME MINISTER THERESA MAY: In accordance with the wishes of the British people, the United Kingdom is leaving the European Union.

MCEVERS: Prime Minister Theresa May announced the huge step this morning in the House of Commons. There are still many months of high-stakes negotiations before the U.K. walks away from the world's largest collective market. NPR's Frank Langfitt reports on this historic day from London.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: May tried to cast Brexit as an opportunity for Britain to reinvent itself as a swashbuckling nation that can cut profitable trade deals around the globe free from the rules and bureaucrats back in Brussels.

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MAY: I want us to be a truly global Britain, the best friend and neighbor to our European partners but a country that reaches beyond the borders of Europe, too, a country that goes out into the world to build relationships with old friends and new allies alike.

LANGFITT: The European Union was built on the ashes of World War II to create a more prosperous and peaceful Europe. Many see Brexit as potentially undermining that. As Britain prepares to strike out on its own, May insisted her country would continue to play a vital role in Europe and beyond.

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MAY: Because perhaps now more than ever, the world needs the liberal democratic values of Europe. Values...

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LANGFITT: Those are the skeptical laughs of Scottish members of the U.K. Parliament. Scotland voted overwhelmingly to stay in the EU last summer. Yesterday, the Scottish Parliament up in Edinburgh voted to request a second independence referendum so Scotland could split from the U.K. and try to find some way to remain a member of the EU. Skepticism about Brexit is widespread in London as well.

LINDA ROBERTS: I feel rather concerned and worried about it, really.

LANGFITT: Linda Roberts is 68 who voted to remain inside the EU. She spoke while waiting for a train back to her home in the north of England. Roberts worries Brexit will prove a huge opportunity cost for young people. Once outside the EU, they're highly unlikely to be able to work visa-free in cities like Paris or Barcelona. And Robert says that could affect her daughter.

ROBERTS: She's in advertising, and a lot of the work is abroad. I know they say it's opening up everything. Well, we were already opened up to the rest of the world. I think, actually, we're just cutting off Europe, which I think is a big mistake.

LANGFITT: The British are known for understatement, but political observers here speak of Brexit in superlatives. They say it could prove transformational for the country for good or ill. Robin Niblett runs Chatham House, the London think tank.

ROBIN NIBLETT: Brexit is a weird combination of looking at the global financial crisis and knowing it's going to happen blended in with kind of Suez crisis.

LANGFITT: The Suez crisis erupted back in 1956 when Britain and France invaded Egypt to take back the Suez Canal only to have a far more powerful United States force them to withdraw. It was seen as a major turning point in the continuing decline of the British Empire.

NIBLETT: At that moment, we were discovering that we couldn't keep empire, that the United States was coming up and becoming the big kid on the block. And it required a real redefinition of self not just of the British government but the British people.

LANGFITT: Not unlike where the United Kingdom finds itself today - on the cusp of dramatic change preparing to define what Britain is and who the British people are outside of the European Union. Frank Langfitt, NPR News, London. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.