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U.K. To Finalize Its Departure From EU

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

On New Year's Eve, the United Kingdom will complete its divorce from the European Union. As for what replaces that crucial trading relationship? Well, who knows? Talks on a new free trade deal are going down to the wire, with new tariffs and customs threatening to disrupt ports in the new year. For more, we turn now to NPR's London correspondent, Frank Langfitt.

Hey, Frank.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Hi, Ailsa.

CHANG: Hi. So where exactly do things stand right now in these negotiations?

LANGFITT: Yeah. They're continuing to argue over European access to U.K. fishing grounds and how to ensure that businesses here in the United Kingdom don't get an advantage over their European competitors. But I've got to say, even if there's an agreement, it's not clear that European leaders will really have time to ratify it before New Year's anyway. And if there is not a deal at all, we're expecting sizeable - big truck backups, delays at the ports.

And this would be coming, of course, in the midst of a pandemic - economics not good here, certainly, in the United Kingdom or in Europe. And, you know, for instance, in London this evening after midnight, pubs and restaurants are going to close to customers because the COVID rates are so high.

CHANG: Wow. So why has it been so hard for them to come up with an agreement?

LANGFITT: Because this is about a lot more than fish, frankly. This is about values and sort of direction of these countries. The EU's a club, and countries there are willing to give up some power and control to gain access to that enormous market. Well, the U.K. now, after decades, wants to be outside that club, but it still wants as much access as it can and as much freedom to make its own regulations. So there's this big tension between sort of the strength of the collective - Europe - and freedom - a self-determination of a country. And that's where the U.K. fits in.

CHANG: Well, I mean, Brexit has been in the works for - what? - more than four years now?

LANGFITT: Yeah.

CHANG: Do you feel like the British government and U.K. businesses are actually ready for the changes come New Year's Eve?

LANGFITT: No. No. I mean, this is kind of another amazing part of the story - they're not. Many businesses are still not sure how they're going to handle customs. And there's just two weeks to go. I was listening to this panel at a think tank here in London called the Institute for Government. Sally Jones - she handles Brexit preparations for EY - that's Ernst & Young, the professional services network - and this is what she said on Friday.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SALLY JONES: I'm so angry about the fact that everything is so last minute. The fact that we've got a situation where U.K. traders will not be able to first access the customs declaration systems until the 23 of December is crazy.

CHANG: I mean, it kind of does sound crazy. Why does it feel so last minute? Why aren't businesses better prepared?

LANGFITT: I think many critics would say Boris Johnson. Basically, the government hasn't helped them and given them the info they need. This is a government that most people would say focuses on politics and, frankly, not basic competence. And I mean, look at the pandemic here in the United Kingdom - have the highest death toll in Europe. Now, Boris Johnson claims that even if the U.K. fails to get a free trade deal and gets hits with tariffs, things are going to be OK. This is what he said a few days ago.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRIME MINISTER BORIS JOHNSON: It's looking, you know, very, very likely that we'll have to go for a solution that I think will be, you know, wonderful for the U.K. We'd be able to do exactly what we want from January the 1. Obviously, it would be different from what we set out to achieve, but I've no doubt this country can get ready.

CHANG: Wait. What is he saying there? That it would be wonderful for the U.K. even if they don't land a free trade deal with Europe?

LANGFITT: Yeah. I don't know an economist who believes that. I've been covering this, obviously, for a number of years, and economists say that walking away empty-handed would be anything but wonderful. The estimated cost I've seen would be more than eight percentage points of lost GDP growth over the next decade. So for a lot of people here, nothing wonderful about that.

CHANG: Right. That is NPR's London correspondent Frank Langfitt.

Thank you, Frank.

LANGFITT: Great to talk, Ailsa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.