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U.K. Reflects On Identity As Brexit Saga Drags On


We're going to our correspondent in London now because after two years of turmoil, the U.K. still can't agree on a plan to withdraw from the European Union. Last week, Britain's parliament voted to postpone the March 29 deadline. But for how long? And under what conditions? And what makes them think they will be any more successful in reaching an agreement this time? Those will be just a few of the questions heading into this week. We want to hear about what effect this is all having on the people most affected by it. And Frank Langfitt is with us now.

Frank, thanks so much for joining us.


MARTIN: So, first of all, how are people in the U.K. taking this never-ending Brexit saga?

LANGFITT: They really hate it. They're bored of it. They're incredibly frustrated. There's a recent poll says more than half the people think Prime Minister May has handled it badly. Only a quarter approve. Those seem pretty generous numbers to me. When I approach people to talk about it these days anywhere around England, people just sigh. They roll their eyes. They just feel that nothing is getting done. It's a huge issue, of course, for this country. And they feel like the political class is failing them.

MARTIN: Is there any particular stories from any particular industry that sticks out to you or, like, what effect this is having on people?

LANGFITT: One was going to talk to a flower seller up in Oxford. And she relies entirely on flowers from the Netherlands, and she had no idea what she was going to do if there was no-deal Brexit - if suddenly, there were inspections, health inspections and tariffs. And there was no way for her to really plan because the government really hadn't told her what she could do. And I think that when you talk to businesses, they're appalled at the failure of the government to resolve this, to give any clarity whatsoever and the fact that we're now - what is it, like, two weeks away? - and we still don't have any idea exactly what's going to happen.

MARTIN: Does anybody have an explanation for how did it get to be such a mess?

LANGFITT: Completely. And I'll tell you this. This is actually not a surprise. And what's so painful about this is how many people warned that this is what would happen. Although, I've got to say, it's even worse than what people predicted. I think what you had is you had a referendum, a very complicated question about more than 40 years of economic and political integration. You're going to unravel that with the EU. And it was a simple up and down vote. There was no explanation for how you would do this. And, in fact, the people who were behind the referendum, who wanted Brexit, had planned not at all.

And so you have the country basically waking up one morning on the 24 of June, 2016 going, how are we going to do this? And it speaks also to such deeply felt ideas about identity, Britain's place in the world, that the country was polarized then. It's even more polarized now.

MARTIN: Talk a little bit more, if you would, about how this speaks to Britain's identity. I understand that you talked to a member of parliament who spoke about that.

LANGFITT: I did. And I thought he put it really well, and I'd like people to listen to it. His name is Stephen Crabb. He's a member of Parliament in Prime Minister May's Conservative Party. He's from Wales. And this is how he put it.


STEPHEN CRABB: We are a country which is very, very secure in its island identity on the back of the history of the world wars and the British Empire before that. And we're at a moment where we're trying to work out who we are and our place in the world. And the tension within Brexit is that a lot of the Brexiteers talk the language of Britain reaching out beyond Europe, being a global trading nation and reaching to all parts of the earth.

But, on the other hand, they also talk the language of pulling up the drawbridge and wanting to be - separate ourselves from the immigration problems of Europe. Well, both things can't be true, and we've got to work out, as Britain, what are we about in the 21st century?

MARTIN: You know, the U.K. and the United States have a lot in common. And one of the things that they seem to have in common is that there are people within their borders who are facing this struggle. They haven't decided how they want to be in the world. Do you see - as an American reporter living there, do you see any lesson for the United States in what the United Kingdom is going through?

LANGFITT: Absolutely. One lesson would be, be very careful about squandering a country's prestige and power. Since Brexit, the United Kingdom's standing in Europe and around the world has fallen dramatically. The economy is still holding up, but attitudes towards the U.K. in Europe basically have people just rolling their eyes. They can't believe that this country that was so effective for so long has now tied itself in knots.

And if you look at the United States, the America-first concept of President Trump is also about leaving international institutions, going off on your own. And what you're seeing there also, both countries, as they go along this continuum, they're finding that their standing is falling in the world. They don't have as many friends as they had.

And the United Kingdom - here, one thing I find really striking is I think many people in England don't really realize that the British Empire has been over for many, many decades. And there's this nostalgia for past power, and it's not realistic. They thought they were going to bring the European Union to its knees in negotiations.

MARTIN: So finally, Frank, is there anything expected to happen this week that we need to be paying attention to?

LANGFITT: Absolutely. There could be. I always have to say could. There could be a vote on Tuesday - a third vote - this is astonishing - on Prime Minister May's Brexit deal, which went down to defeat twice before. And she may bring it up again if she thinks she can win it. Either way, though, she's got to go to Brussels at midweek and start to negotiate a delay on Brexit.

MARTIN: That's NPR's Frank Langfitt in London.

Frank, thanks so much for talking with us.

LANGFITT: Happy to do it, Michel.

(SOUNDBITE OF SKINSHAPE SONG, "TAKE MY TIME") 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.