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What's Next For Brexit: 'Hard' Or 'Soft'


Will the Brexit be hard, soft or maybe no Brexit at all? Those questions are roiling Britain as the now weakened prime minister, Theresa May, weighs her options for negotiating an exit from the European Union. May's Conservative Party lost its majority in Parliament in last week's snap election after promising a hard Brexit, a clean break with the EU.

So with negotiations between the U.K. and the EU scheduled to start on Monday, what happens now? We've asked George Parker to break this down for us. He's political editor of the Financial Times in London, and he joins us from Millbank Studios. Mr. Parker, welcome.


BLOCK: Let's talk first about the path of the hard Brexit. What would that involve?

PARKER: As you say, it would basically represent a clean break for Britain from the European Union. So we'd leave the main aspects of the EU, notably the single market. It's the world's richest single market, a bit like NAFTA for North America. We'd leave the Customs Union, which means that Britain at the moment is able to export goods to Europe without any tariffs and without any checks at the frontier.

And we'd also be allowed to control immigration from the EU, which at the moment we're not allowed to do under the rules of the European Union. So those are the main elements of the so-called hard Brexit. But as you say, the vision of Brexit that Theresa May presented to the electorate has been more or less rejected by the public.

BLOCK: Right. So now scenarios are being entertained that would be softer. How soft? What would that mean?

PARKER: So there - there are Europeans in the Cabinet - and there are quite a few of them - who were rather cowed before the election are now flexing their muscles. And they're talking about a version of Brexit which takes a bit longer. So we have lengthy transition periods to give companies and the government time to adapt.

Some people saying we should stay in the Customs Union for a bit longer, maybe even forever, which would mean that we wouldn't face these tariffs and border controls and generally putting business ahead of all else in the economy, ahead of all else. Because Theresa May is someone who comes from a security background. She used to be the home secretary. And she was very concerned about controlling immigration. That was top of her menu, really, in Brexit.

And that's really concerned British business, which has thrived, really, over the last 50 years or so by having very open borders, attracting the best and the brightest people into the country, particularly to the city of London and financial services sector. So I think that less emphasis on controlling immigration and more emphasis on smoothing this over for business.

BLOCK: What would the practical effects be of these different options? How would Britons be affected in everyday life?

PARKER: Well, I think people's day-to-day life may not be affected all that much because at the moment, some Britons can travel freely between Europe and the U.K. There's talk about when Britain leaves the EU that we might have to get some kind of a visa waiver to travel to the continents and vice versa. But I think more importantly is the economic impact of leaving the EU, that by Britain leaving this huge single market, this huge free trade area with tariff barriers being put up, that people's jobs and livelihoods will be affected.

BLOCK: Aren't there also concerns about the rights of the 3 million EU citizens who were living in the U.K.?

PARKER: That's right. That's the very first thing that will be discussed in these Brexit negotiations which start on Monday. Britain is preparing to make what it calls a very generous offer to the 3 million people living in the U.K. at the moment. So basically saying that the rights that they have at the moment as citizens will be preserved when Britain leaves the EU.

I think the hope is that that will get the talks off to a good start. Both sides want the same thing. So the Polish government wants good rights for Polish citizens living in the U.K. And likewise, the U.K. wants to have good rights preserved for British citizens living in other parts of Europe. So, for example, we have a large number of retired people living in Spain and France.

And, in fact, strangely, one of the paradoxes of Brexit that is that we export our elderly and we import the young and productive workers from other parts of Europe. And it's one of the things, strangely, which the British public seem to have rejected in the Brexit referendum.

BLOCK: I had mentioned earlier the no-Brexit scenario. Is that realistic? Is there any path for Britain to say, you know, never mind, we're going to stay in the EU after all?

PARKER: I think it's really unlikely at the moment. You know, in two years' time, Britain will leave the European Union unless there's a national change of heart, unless the EU, of course, decides they want us to stay. Look. I mean, 82 percent of voters supported Brexit. It seems very unlikely.

On the other hand, there are still people who hope that one day maybe after we see the economic consequences of what we're doing and possibly an economic downturn over the next two years that people will change their mind. But at the moment, I think that's a very unlikely scenario.

BLOCK: OK. George Parker, political editor with the Financial Times in London. Thanks so much.

PARKER: Thank you.

[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: George Parker, during his conversation with Melissa Block, stated that 82 percent of the voters in the UK voted for Brexit. This is incorrect: the actual figure was 52 percent.] Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.