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U.K.'s Theresa May Orders Retreat To Finalize Brexit Terms


More than two years have passed since Britain voted in a referendum to leave the European Union. It was not until tonight that Prime Minister Theresa May got her Cabinet to agree on what it wants Britain's new relationship with the EU to look like. Agreement emerged at last after a marathon meeting nearly 12 hours at the prime minister's retreat outside London. NPR's Alice Fordham is following this story for us. Hey there, Alice.


KELLY: Good evening. So Theresa May said tonight her Cabinet has agreed on this proposal to present to the European Union. Do we know what's in it?

FORDHAM: Well, of course, it might have changed during the day during those protracted discussions, but details of a draft leaked to the British media indicate it will probably be an elaborate series of compromises. And those compromises are necessary because this has been a difficult puzzle. Now, obviously, the problem with the U.K. leaving the EU is that the U.K. participates in many structures and frameworks that affect everything from the way it makes laws to the way it exports goods and the ways it controls its borders.

And so Theresa May has come up with new approaches, which remain aligned with some aspects of the European Union, but they're different in others. She spoke this evening of a U.K.-EU free trade area with a common rulebook on industrial and agricultural goods, although she gave no immediate details on what exactly that means. And we think she may well ask...

KELLY: And the devil has been in the details...

FORDHAM: Exactly.

KELLY: ...At every twist and turn of these negotiations. Go on.

FORDHAM: Well, exactly, exactly - she might ask to partially remain in an EU structure called the single market but only to be in the part of it that allows for free movement of goods but not for the freedom of movement of people.

KELLY: OK. And we described these as protracted negotiations. That sounds hard-fought. What were the objections to Theresa May's way of doing this?

FORDHAM: Well, if we look at it from a business perspective, we can understand that there's a lot of big companies that want to stay close to the EU because that is an easy way to move goods in and out of this country. It's what they refer to as frictionless movement. But what these hard Brexiteers like the foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, have said is that being committed to European frameworks can restrict the U.K. in the business it can do with the rest of the world. And we can take the example of trade with the United States because, actually, the U.S. is the U.K.'s biggest trading partner. And the U.S. ambassador here today said earlier that President Trump is keen to sign a bilateral deal when he visits next week, which could be - many people think - a really great thing for the British economy. But it would be hard for the U.K. to do that if it was still committed to European regulations - and here the devil really is in the details, like you said - European regulations on things like agriculture, how stuff is produced, because they're not the same as American rules.

KELLY: And meanwhile, we await the European reaction. I mean, this is a proposal. What are the chances that Europe will accept it?

FORDHAM: It is likely to be very tricky. So the chief negotiator on the European side for Brexit, Michel Barnier, he gave a speech in which he struck a relatively conciliatory tone, but he said that the EU can't allow anyone to be in the single market that we mentioned earlier and not allow the free movement of people. Just to be clear, Theresa May had said that she wanted the U.K. to be in the single market for the freedom of movement of goods but not for the freedom of movement of people. And what Barnier said was the single market is not a supermarket. It is life. It is economic, cultural and social life. But then he tweeted this evening after Theresa May's announcement, and he said the agreement was to be welcomed, and he would look forward to seeing the document in full. And he would see if it was workable and realistic.

KELLY: And real quick, Alice, sounds like protracted negotiations but a good day for Theresa May.

FORDHAM: For today, certainly. It's going to be a long road ahead. She would have to get the legislation passed in Parliament. She may have to fight some of her own party to get it through. But it has bought her some time, certainly, yes.

KELLY: All right. That's NPR's Alice Fordham in London. Thank you.

FORDHAM: Thanks so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Alice Fordham is an NPR International Correspondent based in Beirut, Lebanon.