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How U.K.'s Separation From EU Will Affect The Country

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

New Year's Eve - the ball drops, the champagne corks pop and the United Kingdom finally officially finishes its divorce from the world's largest trading bloc, the European Union. Brexit has huge consequences for business, travelers and regular people who built lives based on a Europe that spanned the English Channel. This is a big gamble for the U.K., one that started more than four years ago when one of the biggest cheerleaders for Brexit was a former London mayor named Boris Johnson.

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PRIME MINISTER BORIS JOHNSON: If we burst out of the shackles of Brussels, we would be able to begin immediately with those long-neglected free trade opportunities, which we can't do at the moment.

SHAPIRO: British voters are known for their caution. So when the BBC announced the results of the Brexit referendum on that June night in 2016, it stunned the world.

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DAVID DIMBLEBY: The British people have spoken, and the answer is, we're out.

SHAPIRO: Johnson and his fellow Brexiteers had no real plan for how to actually untangle decades of economic and legal integration with Europe. And so a country known for effective, sometimes dull governance was plunged into years of political chaos that cost two prime ministers their jobs; first, David Cameron, the man who called the referendum, even as he urged Brits to vote against it.

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DAVID CAMERON: I do not think it would be right for me to try to be the captain that steers our country to its next destination.

SHAPIRO: Theresa May stepped up as prime minister. And three years later, she was out too.

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THERESA MAY: I will shortly leave the job that it has been the honor of my life to hold.

SHAPIRO: And here's where Boris Johnson reenters the picture. Now he is prime minister. This year, Johnson finally engineered Britain's departure. This week, he signed a new free-trade deal with the EU.

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JOHNSON: I think this deal means a new stability and a new certainty in what has sometimes been a fractious and difficult relationship.

SHAPIRO: So tonight, after 4 1/2 of the most tumultuous years in modern British politics, Brexit becomes a reality. Let's explore what that reality means, beginning where the rubber literally meets the road...

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SHAPIRO: ...On a highway outside the port of Dover along the English Channel. That's where we caught NPR's London correspondent Frank Langfitt ahead of tonight's deadline.

Frank, congratulations on reaching this momentous day after the years you've been covering this story.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: (Laughter) It's remarkable. I think people were never sure it would ever come.

SHAPIRO: Well, here we are. Tell us exactly where you are, what it looks like and why you chose this place; what it tells us about Brexit.

LANGFITT: Yeah, so what I am is I'm on the M20 heading towards the port of Dover. And right now there are police there rerouting trucks down to an area. They've actually taken up a whole stretch of highway to test people for COVID - truckers for COVID-19. And the reason for this, as you remember, is a variant that's highly infectious has been sort of sweeping through England.

SHAPIRO: Yeah.

LANGFITT: France shut down the border. And so what's happening right now, Ari, is trucks are trying to cross the English Channel before the rules change.

SHAPIRO: So those rules come into force with the New Year.

LANGFITT: Yeah.

SHAPIRO: How is that going to affect trade and transportation?

LANGFITT: Well, in one sense, it's good. Because there was a trade deal done, there won't be any new tariffs or quotas on most products going across. That's a huge relief, particularly for, like, car companies that want to get cars over there. But there is going to be a lot more paperwork. And U.K. businesses, I think, are going to face about $10 billion in extra costs. Government says that we should expect more delays here for trucks. Now, I was talking to a guy that I know named Lorenzo Zaccheo, Ari. He runs a trucking company here around Dover. And he says the government's not giving clear guidance, and he's worried about what could happen to his trucks as they begin to move again across Europe.

LORENZO ZACCHEO: Things, basically, are much, much, much worse because if you miss one document, it's a guaranteed impounding of the vehicle.

LANGFITT: And do you regret voting for Brexit now?

ZACCHEO: At this point, yes. They made us believe that this was going to be better off. And actually, that could be the end of my company.

LANGFITT: And what Lorenzo says is his trucks won't be able to pick up and move goods around Europe, and he may put his trucks, a lot of them, in Europe permanently.

SHAPIRO: Part of an exodus of businesses from Great Britain to the rest of Europe - are you seeing other changes that have already taken place over the years that we've been talking about Brexit?

LANGFITT: Yeah.

SHAPIRO: After all, it's been a really long time coming.

LANGFITT: It has. You're exactly right, Ari. And so one thing is this new trade deal doesn't cover services, so that's about 80% of the U.K. economy. It's a lot. So financial services have been - basically been sending thousands of jobs to Europe to continue to be able to work there. The good news is it's nowhere near as many as people thought. But, you know, the cost and burden of paperwork that Lorenzo was just talking about is going to hit small businesses really hard. Last year, I visited a flower shop. It's run by a woman named Rosa Ashby. She buys flowers from Holland. And she says there's been so much uncertainty around Brexit, she just decided to close her shop.

ROSA ASHBY: We had had our business for 22 years. And when we finally locked that door for the last time, it was very traumatic and sad. I still maintain Brexit should not happen. I dread for the future in that way for many businesses.

SHAPIRO: You know, Frank, one of the issues that motivated so many Brexit voters was immigration. People didn't want migrants coming from other parts of Europe to the U.K. And so how is immigration going to change with this deal?

LANGFITT: Migration is going to change dramatically, Ari. With the U.K. inside the EU, Britons can live and work visa-free on the continent and vice versa. Now people coming here - a lot of them will have to get work visas. I spent some time in a city called Boston, which was the hardest core Brexit voting place in the country. And there were a lot of complaints there about the flow of migrant workers basically taking up resources in schools, things like that. And there's a guy that I talked to, Julian Thompson, up there. He's hopeful that Brexit, over time, is going to reduce the numbers of migrants here.

JULIAN THOMPSON: Whilst it's been good for us, there's also a negative side as well. There's quite a few coming over now without jobs and not enough jobs for them and not enough properties for them and overloading the system.

LANGFITT: You know, and some immigrants here haven't felt welcomed the last few years and have left. A guy that I know, Samuele Marcora - he was a professor at the University of Kent. He didn't feel comfortable, even though he'd spent, like, 20 years here. And this year, he and his wife finally moved back to Italy.

SAMUELE MARCORA: I was forced out by my own discomfort of realizing after so many years that the main reason for voting out for many, many people was, you know, that they wanted to stop free movement of people like me.

SHAPIRO: Frank, so many powerful stories of individual upheaval - what is the overall impact of this going to be on the U.K. economy going forward?

LANGFITT: Well, it's not a much better prognosis, Ari. The consensus among economists I've been talking to for years is it's going to do damage. One estimate - per capita, GDP will grow more than 6% slower over the next decade. The U.K. will be at least $160 billion poorer that it would have been if it stayed in the EU. This is Jonathan Portes, an economics professor over at King's College in London.

JONATHAN PORTES: Most economists think this is indeed a historic mistake. And the model here is not economic collapse. It's a slow puncture. It's that the U.K. ends up looking a bit like Italy.

SHAPIRO: So that's a gloomy outlook. Are there scenarios where Brexit looks like a better decision down the road than it does today?

LANGFITT: I think there could. I mean, remember; Brexit is really about the idea of national sovereignty. It's not about economics. And this is how Boris Johnson put it on Christmas Eve, when he finally got that trade deal.

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JOHNSON: The British people voted to take back control of their money, their borders, their laws.

LANGFITT: And, of course, that's at an economic cost, Ari. Another potential scenario where Brexit looks a little better is if, politically, the EU becomes even harder to manage and the U.K., in the end, is glad that it got out when it did.

SHAPIRO: That's NPR's Frank Langfitt.

Thank you for all of your coverage of this story over the years and particularly today on this historic moment.

LANGFITT: Great to talk, Ari.

SHAPIRO: All right. From the edge of the English Channel, let's head now to Oxford, where Anand Menon is director of The U.K. In A Changing Europe. That's a think tank with a focus on Brexit.

Welcome.

ANAND MENON: Thank you for having me.

SHAPIRO: Well, on a scale from solid win to utter disaster, where would you put this deal?

MENON: Oh, very much towards the win side because by the time we reached sort of Christmas - and, of course, the deal was finally done on Christmas Eve - we had a binary choice, which was between deal and no deal. No deal would have been significantly more disruptive, significantly more costly. And I think as importantly, a no deal outcome would have set the U.K. and its European partners at loggerheads as each side blamed the other for the collapse of the talks. And that would have got in the way of cooperation on security, on climate, on all kinds of things for weeks, if not months. So compared to that outcome, a deal is a win.

SHAPIRO: From the American perspective, Britain's role as a global leader has been crucial. I mean, the U.K. has a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council. It's a powerful force in NATO. How do you see that changing after this Brexit deal?

MENON: I mean, what I say is the one bit you missed there is that the U.K. has also been useful to the U.S. as a friend inside the European Union; that is to say an Atlanticist liberal free-trading state that could shape EU decisions and make the case for Atlanticism and free trade at the heart of the European Union. I think the U.S. will miss that. I suspect the U.K. will make efforts to be an even more activist foreign policy player because the government is keen to ram home that message. We might have turned our back on European Union membership, but we haven't turned our back on the world or on our responsibilities as a key defender of the liberal international order.

SHAPIRO: I'm curious. As a person who has devoted your professional life to following this saga over the years, can you just tell us how you personally feel now that this deal has finally happened?

MENON: I found every step of the journey very, very interesting because so many weird and wonderful things have happened in British politics.

SHAPIRO: Wonderful, broadly defined (laughter).

MENON: From the perspective of a political scientist, you could not have hoped to live through a more interesting time to study the politics of your country. The other thing for me that is fascinating, though, is that many - for many people who supported Brexit, leaving the European Union wasn't an end in itself. It was a means to an end. That is to say if we leave the European Union, then we can, dot, dot, dot. You fill in that blank as you want - become a more activist international player, deregulating the way the European Union would never let us. So actually, the real test of Brexit in many ways is yet to come, which is now you've got that freedom. What the hell are you going to do with it? And how are you going to make people's lives better because of it, despite the fact that you're in charge of an economy that is growing less fast than it would have done had we not left in the first place?

SHAPIRO: Anand Menon is director of The U.K. In A Changing Europe and professor of European politics and foreign affairs at King's College, London.

Thank you for talking with us on this historic day.

MENON: Absolute pleasure - and happy New Year to you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.