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EU Approves Brexit Deal


Today, in Brussels, European Union leaders signed what amounts to the divorce papers the U.K. needs to separate from the EU next March. All but one of the leaders who spoke to reporters at the summit said they were sad to see the first EU country leaving the fold. The exception was British Prime Minister Theresa May. But her joy, or perhaps relief, at achieving a deal after lengthy and difficult negotiations may be short-lived, as the deal still needs the approval of the U.K. Parliament, where she does not have the votes. NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson has been covering the story in Brussels, and she's with us now. Soraya, welcome.


MARTIN: So Theresa May has been adamant that Brexit is what the U.K. wants. So why, then, is she having such a hard time selling this deal that was a year-and-a-half in the making?

NELSON: Well, some of the critics say that it leaves the U.K. in limbo. In other words, not really in and not really out of the European Union. Others are saying the treaty reads more like an agreement to have an agreement. And there's, also, a lot of concern about what happens with the very sensitive border between Ireland and Northern Ireland.

The concern is that - after this transition period that's going to go on for a while ends, that Northern Ireland, which is part of the U.K., could actually end up on the other side of the border and that there will be customs checkpoints and passport controls to go from one part of the U.K. to the other. So the Northern Irish MPs from the Democratic Unionist Party, whose votes the prime minister counts on in Parliament, say they plan to vote no on the deal.

MARTIN: Well, what else is in the treaty?

NELSON: It commits the United Kingdom to fulfilling its financial obligations to the EU, which is estimated to be around $50 billion. And it also buys both sides more time to come up with a trade deal because, basically, what happens is that the U.K. stays within the EU single market until December 2020. According to May, the treaty allows the U.K. to start looking for new trade deals, not only with the EU but with other countries. But what's clear is that even if this deal is ratified by the U.K. Parliament, both London and Brussels have years of negotiations in their future on every conceivable topic before the divorce will be truly final.

MARTIN: So I guess the question would be is there a better deal to be negotiated with the EU?

NELSON: Well, not if Jean-Claude Juncker has anything to say about it. He's the head of the European Commission and spoke with reporters after the summit.


JEAN-CLAUDE JUNCKER: I'm inviting those who have to ratify this deal in the House of Commons to take this in consideration - this is the best deal possible for Britain. This is the best deal possible for Europe. This is the only deal possible.

NELSON: But the fact is neither side wants a no-deal Brexit, which would cost hundreds of billions of dollars in paralyzed travel and trade. Most EU member states, with the exception of the Netherlands maybe, aren't adequately preparing for what will happen after March 29, which is when the U.K. leaves the group.

MARTIN: So does Theresa May have a plan to win over her opponents in the House of Commons?

NELSON: She does seem to have one, and that is taking the message directly to the British people. And she's expected to spend the next two weeks or so traveling around the country, trying to sell the treaty, before the vote in the House of Commons on it in a little over two weeks' time.

MARTIN: That's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson in Brussels. Soraya, thank you.

NELSON: You're welcome, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Special correspondent Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson is based in Berlin. Her reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered, and read at NPR.org. From 2012 until 2018 Nelson was NPR's bureau chief in Berlin. She won the ICFJ 2017 Excellence in International Reporting Award for her work in Central and Eastern Europe, North Africa, the Middle East and Afghanistan.