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How European Politicians Are Reacting To The Defeat Of The U.K. Brexit Plan

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

This week, British lawmakers handed a stunning rejection to British Prime Minister Theresa May's plan for taking the U.K. out of the European Union. Brussels is the seat of the European Union. And so to find out how politicians there are reacting, we've reached Jeremy Cliffe, Brussels bureau chief for The Economist. Welcome.

JEREMY CLIFFE: Good to be with you.

SHAPIRO: When British parliament overwhelmingly voted down this deal that Theresa May had worked out with the EU, how did EU leaders react?

CLIFFE: They weren't happy about it. This has been dragging on for almost two years now. The two-year period in which Britain is supposed to be negotiating its exit from the EU is almost up. And I think there's a real concern, first of all, that Britain will leave the EU without a deal, which will have knock-on effects spreading widely across the continent, but also that this issue will continue to drag on in Brussels and take up more time that EU leaders would rather spend on other priorities.

SHAPIRO: Another - a number of British lawmakers said, we can get a better deal from the EU. Go back and re-negotiate. Is that realistic? Is that the view in Brussels?

CLIFFE: It's not realistic within the U.K.'s existing red lines. Theresa May said, for example, that she won't tolerate free movement of people between Britain and the rest of the EU after it's left. And that makes it impossible, for example, to the EU to accept British full membership of the European single market. There's a real gap between, I think, what many people in London think they can get and what the Europeans are willing to give.

In reality, though she's made some tactical errors, Theresa May got the best deal out of the EU that she was going to get in the circumstances. It's not going to get any better than this unless she changes her red lines.

SHAPIRO: Well, after that deal was overwhelmingly voted down, Parliament took a no confidence vote. And she narrowly survived. Do you think most people in Brussels were disappointed or relieved that she remains prime minister?

CLIFFE: They may not have any great affection for Theresa May, but in Brussels, I think there was relief at that result. They do not need more uncertainty and instability in London. And there was certainly a concern that she might, if she lost, be replaced by a even more hardline Brexiteer who would be even harder to negotiate. So there was - there were very few people here hoping for a no confidence vote.

But there is an impatience, as I say, a sense that the ball is back in Britain's court and that Britain needs to decide what to do next and, in many cases, I think something like despair at the Brits ever making their mind up about this.

SHAPIRO: Yeah. Well, as you said, there is fear that this could drag on. What are the chances that it could drag on past this March 29 deadline when the U.K. is scheduled to leave the EU? How likely is it that this could be extended?

CLIFFE: That's right. March 29 is when the two-year official period for negotiating an exit is over. And if nothing changes between now and then, Britain will leave regardless of whether it wants to or not. That's automatic - unless, that is, the remaining 27 governments of the EU agree unanimously to let it extend that period. And I think they'd say yes to that. If Britain couldn't make its mind up by then, they would give it another couple of months.

The real hard deadline is the European parliament election in late May. And many people here don't want Britain to stay in beyond the start of the new parliament session, which is in July, simply because then you'd have the question of what do you do with - do you give British politicians seats in that new parliament, or does Britain somehow sit in the EU without having representation in its legislature? That would be messy, and I think people would try and avoid that if possible.

SHAPIRO: So you're saying even if there is an extension, it's an extension of maybe a couple months, not much more than that.

CLIFFE: Most probably. It's not completely inconceivable that Britain could extend its membership and extend the negotiating period beyond the start of the new parliament, which might mean having British members of that European parliament sitting for the remaining period of the negotiation. It might mean Britain accepting that it doesn't have representation in that parliament. It's not really clear how you'd find a fix to that. But I think it's more likely that the extension would be limited to that, the remaining period of the current parliament, so up till July.

SHAPIRO: Jeremy Cliffe, thanks so much for joining us.

CLIFFE: Thank you.

SHAPIRO: He is Brussels bureau chief for The Economist. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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