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Latest On Brexit Trade Deal Negotiations

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Let's turn our attention now to the United Kingdom and the European Union. They are racing to seal a post-Brexit free trade agreement before the end of the year. Without a deal, Britain risks crashing out of the EU and walking away from the agonizing Brexit process empty-handed. We are joined by NPR's London correspondent Frank Langfitt, who's been following the Brexit saga since the U.K. voted more than four years ago to leave the EU. Hi, Frank.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Hi, Ari. How are you doing?

SHAPIRO: All right. This is crunch time. Bring us up to speed on where things are right now and what the sticking point appears to be.

LANGFITT: The vast majority of the deal is already agreed to. The big issue now, believe it or not, Ari, is fish. And that may sound a little crazy to listeners, but here's the reason why - tiny, tiny percentage of the economy, but symbolically really important. You go back to 2016, the Brexit referendum - people like Boris Johnson and others said, we're going to take back control of our laws and our fishing waters. And so what's happening now is the United Kingdom wants as much tariff-free and quota-free access to the EU enormous market and the EU saying, well, OK, but if you want to sell fish to us, we want to be able to ply your fishing grounds. And that's the big sticking point right now.

SHAPIRO: Brexit has been chaotic, to say the least. It has paralyzed the British Parliament, cost two prime ministers their jobs. What is at stake right now in getting this deal done?

LANGFITT: A lot. I mean, really, if they can get a deal, there's an opportunity for the United Kingdom to move forward after this very chaotic period and also reduce the damage to the U.K. economy because things will be a bit stable. If there's no deal, it could cause U.K. per capita income more than 8% of growth over the next decade. Most economists think it really would do a lot of damage.

The other thing is, the Brexit transition periods about to end. If they don't get a deal, you have tariffs and customs chaos at the border. We just saw a glimpse of what the border can look like this week when France closed down its border, particularly the Port of Dover, because of a coronavirus variant that seems to be a lot more infectious. They've just reopened the border, but there were still, you know, in the neighborhood of 3,800 trucks trapped on this side of the channel. So what they want to avoid is, like, a big, big mess come New Year's.

SHAPIRO: And the Port of Dover is a crucial trade route to Europe. Is the closure of the port figuring into these negotiations at all?

LANGFITT: I think directly, no. But it's kind of a reminder, frankly, Ari, about how lonely the U.K. might feel outside the EU. France was able - saying they wanted to do this for public health reasons but really disrupt trade. So there is a sense here that the U.K. outside the EU is just not going to have the leverage it had inside that much, much bigger body.

SHAPIRO: You're talking about the potential for harm and damage. If they do get a deal done, is that then, like, smooth sailing for Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Britain?

LANGFITT: Not quite. I mean, I think it'll be a big relief, and Johnson will get a lot of credit for this, I think. But this is a big gamble. Ari - striking out on their own, the United Kingdom, trying to do new trade deals, but hoping that the UK will prosper. But also, Brexit has really upset a lot of people in this country, particularly in Scotland. And now there's a big push for another Scottish independence referendum. So Boris Johnson, even coming next year, even if this works out, he could have a lot on his hands.

SHAPIRO: That is NPR London correspondent Frank Langfitt on the story he's been covering for years now. Thank you, Frank.

LANGFITT: Great to talk, Ari.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.