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Calculating The Brexit Arithmetic


This weekend marks a major step in Britain's more than two-year journey to leave the European Union. The EU's remaining 27 nations will vote on a divorce agreement with the United Kingdom. And for more, we turn to NPR's Frank Langfitt in London. Hi, Frank.


SHAPIRO: How is this vote likely to go in Brussels - any chance of a defeat?

LANGFITT: I think people would be really surprised if there were a defeat. You know, there are complaints about it. Spain is threatening to vote against it because they have a dispute with the United Kingdom over Gibraltar. Britain has ruled Gibraltar for several centuries. But the sense is the European Union is generally getting most of what it wants out of this, and it's expected to pass there on Sunday.

SHAPIRO: OK, but then it has to get through the British Parliament.


SHAPIRO: And it faces a much steeper climb there. Tell us about how it's looking.

LANGFITT: It's totally different over here in the British Parliament. And the numbers are bad right now, as far as anybody can tell. May's Conservative Party doesn't even have a parliamentary majority here, so they don't have enough votes of their own to do it. I was speaking to a guy named Stephen Bush. He writes for the New Statesman. It's a left-leaning political magazine here. And he's a top political journalist. And this is what he said.

STEPHEN BUSH: She's 72 votes down before you kind of factor in the fact that the opposition parties will all vote against. So she is well adrift and on course for quite a big defeat as it stands.

SHAPIRO: So objections from the left and the right, from her own party and outside of her party.


SHAPIRO: What happens if it fails?

LANGFITT: Well, this is really interesting. Some people in her own party, Brexiteers, they would love to go back to Brussels and try to get this deal tweaked. But Brussels is not in the mood to make changes. They've been negotiating over this for a ton of time, and they're kind of tired of it. Some people here have been talking about a pretty interesting scenario that will sound familiar to Americans. They are saying in recent U.S. history there's something that could be relevant. You remember in 2008 the U.S. global financial crisis. There was this Troubled Asset Relief Program, TARP, which we all covered. This was going to have the government buy all these toxic assets for hundreds of billions of dollars. Well, Congress initially voted it down. Markets crashed. And even though Congress didn't like it, they passed it later kind of in a panic.


LANGFITT: Now, the thought is there could be a market crash here that could push members of Parliament to change their mind. But it's not clear because most people don't expect this thing to pass in the first place.

SHAPIRO: Remind us why British leaders of so many different political stripes hate this deal.

LANGFITT: Well, they hate it because it comes down to the Irish border. At a certain point, when the United Kingdom leaves the European Union, it will create the need for a border on the island of Ireland between Northern Ireland, which is a part of the U.K., and the Republic of Ireland that is part of the EU. And basically what the EU is saying is, you can't leave until we solve this problem. And Brexiteers are saying, gosh, it could take forever to get a new trade deal. We are not sure how to solve the problem exactly. So we could be stuck in the EU for years.

SHAPIRO: Could Theresa May's political career survive having this voted down in Parliament?

LANGFITT: Well, normally a prime minister, Ari, as you know, here would have to resign. But since the Brexit vote in 2016, the normal rules definitely do not apply to British politics anymore. Stephen Bush, that journalist I was talking to, thinks that she actually may just keep coming back to Parliament until she gets the answer she wants. This is how he put it.

BUSH: I suspect that what might have to happen is you have a defeat everyone expects, another vote where people kind of expect it to be fine when it's not fine. And then perhaps at that point, you get the necessary panic.

SHAPIRO: Theresa May has been in such an odd position for the last two years implementing or trying to implement this policy that she was not a supporter of before she became prime minister.

LANGFITT: No, exactly.

SHAPIRO: How has she managed to survive through all of this?

LANGFITT: You know, it's remarkable to watch her. She gets a lot of criticism here, but she just doesn't quit. Nobody seems to be able - they try to beat her down. It doesn't really work. There have been a number of memes out that depict her as the Black Knight in "Monty Python And The Holy Grail." This is the knight that keeps losing limbs and keeps fighting on, saying it's just a scratch.


LANGFITT: And Stephen Bush, the journalist I was talking to, he says this has been her style for a long time.

BUSH: She would effectively just gradually exhaust her way to victory. That's effectively Theresa May's political approach. Just keep on, you know, pootling along and wait for your opponents to wear themselves out.

SHAPIRO: Pootling along.

LANGFITT: Pootling along - and I should add one other thing here that the prime minister has going for her. If this all falls apart, the United Kingdom could leave the European Union with no deal at all, which most people think would be economically disastrous. And it would be seen globally as a huge self-inflicted wound. So there is a worst-case scenario that she's - you know, and she stands between the United Kingdom and that scenario. The other thing is that when you listen to all of her opponents, none of them have a better idea honestly for leaving the EU. It's a bad situation. But she does have, in some respects, a relatively strong position.

SHAPIRO: NPR's Frank Langfitt in London, thank you.

LANGFITT: Happy to do it, Ari. 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.