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U.K.'s Brexit Strategy Will Be Laid Out This Year

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

It's a made-up word that became one of the biggest political events of 2016 - Brexit, the vote by the United Kingdom to leave the European Union. The vote itself came as a shock, but there was another surprise after the referendum. The politicians who pushed for Brexit had no plan on how to execute it. Prime Minister Theresa May is expected to start laying out her strategy in the coming year. To get a sense of how Brexit might play out, we turn now to NPR's Frank Langfitt in London. Hi, Frank.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Good morning, Rachel.

MARTIN: This was a huge deal when it happened. Remind us, just first off, of the implications of the Brexit vote.

LANGFITT: Well, the first thing, as you were saying, is it was a surprise. People were very struck that the U.K. would actually vote to walk away from a market of a half a billion people in the EU while basically doing damage to the economic and political project - the European Union - that's helped keep peace in Europe for decades.

Now, as we look at it after the election of Mr. Trump, obviously, in the United States, this all seems very prescient. There were big issues in Brexit - were immigration, a backlash against elites and anti-globalization. These are some of the same issues that actually drove the election in November in the States.

MARTIN: Yeah, sounds familiar. So last summer, Theresa May, the prime minister, stood outside Parliament in London and pledged that her government would deliver on the will of the voters. Let's take a listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRIME MINISTER THERESA MAY: Brexit means Brexit, and we're going to make a success of it.

MARTIN: So, Frank, as we move into 2017, do we really know what Brexit means and when it will happen?

LANGFITT: Well, answering the timing question is a little easier. The U.K.'s probably going to trigger Brexit as early as March. And then it'll be two years to complete negotiations to leave the EU. As to a plan, it's still really mostly a mystery, and that's kind of remarkable given the high stakes. The problem is this vote created a huge dilemma. Voters wanted out of the EU so the U.K. could take control of immigration, cut the numbers of people coming here.

But to do that, the U.K. would have to give up tariff-free access to this enormous market that I was just talking about. And many expect that that's going to do long-term damage to the economy. So May has these tough negotiations ahead. And one of the reasons she's not telling people is she doesn't want to reveal her plan to the people she's - who are going to be on the other side of the table in Europe.

MARTIN: Surely there are policy experts, economists who must be speculating about what Brexit's going to look like. Any hints at this point?

LANGFITT: Well, for all the tough talk, at the moment - and I want to emphasize it's the moment because this is very much a moving target - the U.K. seems to be maybe looking for a special kind of deal, somewhere between a harsh divorce and currently what are irreconcilable differences. So for instance, May is looking for some kind of deal for the City of London so that financial companies can keep doing business in Europe.

We saw earlier this month Lloyd's of London actually announced plans to open a subsidiary in Europe. So there is really a fear of losing financial operations to the continent. In exchange for market access, the EU almost certainly would be pressing for the continued free flow of people in labor. Otherwise, a lot of other countries in the EU are going to be demanding the same deal, and that could cause the whole operation to begin to unravel.

MARTIN: And, Frank, I remember after the Brexit vote there were all these stories immediately about how people were feeling regret about voting to leave the EU. Are you seeing any evidence of that?

LANGFITT: No. And, you know, a lot of that story was anecdotal, and I frankly didn't buy it when it came out. Polls continue to show that this is a highly polarized electorate. And what's very interesting and maybe not surprising is that a lot of people here in the U.K. actually want to control immigration, but they still want access - as much tariff-free access as possible to the European market, which means basically they want their cake and they want to be able to eat it, too. And what we're going to find, I think, next year is, when they get into really heavy negotiations, something's going to have to give.

MARTIN: NPR's Frank Langfitt in London. Thanks, Frank.

LANGFITT: Happy to do it, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.