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U.K. And EU Reach Post-Brexit Trade Agreement

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

The U.K. government has agreed to a post-Brexit free trade deal with the European Union with just a week to go before a New Year's Eve deadline. We are expecting very shortly to hear from British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who was a key campaigner for Brexit during the landmark referendum 4 1/2 years ago.

We want to turn to NPR's Frank Langfitt in London. He has covered the entire Brexit saga and joins us for this moment. Good morning, Frank.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Good morning, David.

GREENE: Well, it feels like we're there.

LANGFITT: It is. Actually, we're just watching the press conference in Brussels, the EU actually announcing this, and we are waiting for Prime Minister Johnson. It's - yeah, it's - feel like it's been a long time coming.

GREENE: Yeah. How did negotiators finally get across the finish line here?

LANGFITT: Well, they had - they actually were - one of the big sticking points, believe it or not, David, was a matter of fish at fishing grounds. And I know that that might sound kind of odd to listeners in America...

GREENE: It all comes down to fish.

LANGFITT: Well, because fish are such a small part of, say, the European - particularly the U.K. economy. But this was also - it's a matter of how much more fish the European fleets could continue to take from U.K. waters. And it actually had a big symbolic value for people here.

If you remember back in 2016, the Brexit campaign, the slogan was all about taking back control. And basically, the idea was that this nation-state, the United Kingdom, could be better off without the European Union, making its own rules and things like that. And so it was very hard for the U.K. to be able to say, yes, you can continue to take fish out of our waters. But in the end, the U.K. did agree to some things for the European Union, and that seems to have gotten it over the line today.

GREENE: But, I mean, this was so much more than symbolism. I mean, this caused such a debate about what to do and what Brexit could mean for the United Kingdom. Do we know what the deal does mean going forward?

LANGFITT: Yeah, we do. We're still waiting. It's apparently 2,000 pages of material.

GREENE: Wow. Start reading, Frank.

LANGFITT: And it actually does - it only - but it only covers so much of the economy. What it will allow, we believe, is the U.K. to export to the EU tariff- and quota-free. Well, that's really important to the - for the United Kingdom to be able to do that, to do sort of as frictionless trade as possible.

And then in the shorter run, just this week that you and I are talking about, there was real concern if there was a no-deal Brexit, if this all fell apart, you'd see even more chaos at the borders in about seven days when the Brexit transition period ends. Well, we've already gotten a look at what that could look like this week. France closed down the Port of Dover effectively and shut down the borders with the U.K. over this coronavirus variant that we've been - coronavirus variant we've been reporting on. And we have thousands and thousands of trucks still stuck on this side of the channel. So there, a no-deal Brexit is a great concern that things would be even worse and Brexit would cause more damage, frankly.

GREENE: But I just want to be really clear here. I mean, I know you have 2,000 pages to read, so it's going to take a while...

LANGFITT: Sure.

GREENE: ...To see exactly what's in here. But it is not clear that this will make the U.K. a richer country.

LANGFITT: No, no, no. Not at all. And I think, David, it's really important for people to understand that, certainly, a lot of economic analysts and trade analysts would say that this deal averts, you know, a real - basically could be a bit of a disaster at the end of the year. But it's not - it's what we would call a very thin deal. It doesn't deal with much with services. It's mostly with trade and products, imports and exports. It's a hard Brexit.

And economists say even with this deal, per capita income in this country is still going to be reduced, the growth, by about 6.4% over the next 10 years. So many people would say, certainly an economic analyst would say, this was a choice between bad and worse.

GREENE: OK, I'm sure we'll be hearing much more from you throughout the day, Frank. Just restating the news, the announcement is taking place as we speak. The U.K. government has reached a post-Brexit deal with the European Union. We'll be following this story.

NPR's Frank Langfitt for us in London. Frank, thank you so much.

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