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United Kingdom Moves Step Closer To Leaving European Union

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

The United Kingdom has moved one step closer to leaving the European Union, and that may mean Scotland is one step closer to leaving the United Kingdom. British Prime Minister Theresa May told the House of Commons that this month, she will take the formal step to start two years of negotiating with Europe over the terms of Britain's departure. In the prime minister's statement, she referred to the devolved administrations, meaning the regional governments of Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRIME MINISTER THERESA MAY: The new relationship with the EU that we negotiate will work for the whole of the United Kingdom. That is why we have been working closely with the devolved administrations.

(CROSSTALK)

SIEGEL: Those hoots of parliamentary derision we're mainly from Scottish MPs. Most Scots voted to stay in the European Union. To help us sort through the latest plot twists in the love-hate triangle of Britain, Europe and Scotland is George Parker, political editor of the Financial Times. Thanks for joining us again.

GEORGE PARKER: Pleasure.

SIEGEL: And first, what's noteworthy about when and how Theresa May plans to start exit negotiations?

PARKER: Well, Theresa May had to pass an act of parliament to allow her to start the exit process. It went through its final Commons and House of Lords stages on Monday. The bill went through unamended, and that means that as soon as the queen has put her signature on the bill, which we expect to happen in the next couple of days, Theresa May will be free to start Brexit. And we expect that to happen in the last week of March in the immediate aftermath, paradoxically, of the celebrations to mark the EU's 60th birthday in Rome.

SIEGEL: Now, the Scottish national leader has called for another independence referendum, the idea being that staying in a U.K. that's outside of Europe is different from staying in one that's inside. Is there likely to be another referendum?

PARKER: Yes. I think it's almost certain there will be one. Nicola Sturgeon, the first minister of Scotland, is saying that things have changed materially since the last time the Scots had a vote on independence, which you probably remember was only in 2014, so only three years ago. At that time, Scottish National Party people said this was a once-in-a-generation vote. The generation's being compressed to four years.

But I think it's almost certain this referendum will take place. Theresa May has the legal right to say, no, the Scots can't have this vote, but there's a view in Westminster that would only fuel a sense of grievance. Although she's likely to specify the timetable in which it's held. Theresa May is very keen that the referendum should take place after Brexit is complete in 2019 rather than in the middle of the process, which is what Nicola Sturgeon's been asking for.

SIEGEL: George, try to sort this one out for me. What would be the big difference between British terms of leaving the EU that Theresa May would consider very good and terms that she might find very bad? That is, how wide is the range of possible outcomes of these negotiations?

PARKER: Well, Theresa May's narrowed down the range of outcomes through her own speeches in the run-up to the start of the talks. So she's said, for example, that Britain will not be part of the European single market in future. We won't be part of the customs union, which means there's a - from now on, British goods will have to be traded through borders where there'll be checks. And she's also said that Britain won't be subject to the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice. All those things have limited her room for maneuver. And that's precisely the so-called hard Brexit that Nicola Sturgeon, the Scottish first minister, is resisting.

SIEGEL: Given the terms that Theresa May, as you say, has established, given her own positions, what are all the complications of negotiations with the EU? Is it whether British passport holders get separate lines at airports? Is it duties on British goods? What are they going to be talking about for two years?

PARKER: Well, the haggling really is going to be around the level of access that Britain will have to the European single market. So the things in play, really, here are the kind of immigration regime the U.K. will allow EU citizens to Britain after we leave. Theresa May says she wants to impose some kind of border controls on European citizens coming to stay here. The second big dispute is about money. The European Union is saying that Britain should pay an exit bill, our liabilities they calculate being around about 40 to 60 billion euros. Now, that sum is heavily disputed by London. They say that's far too much.

But nevertheless, the areas of flexibility for Theresa May, I think, are paying more money into the European budget, providing a generous new system of immigration to European citizens. And the more generous that Theresa May is on both of those two issues, the more likely it is that the European Union will be generous in terms of access to the single market after we leave.

SIEGEL: That's George Parker, political editor of the Financial Times, speaking to us from London. Thank you.

PARKER: It's a pleasure.

(SOUNDBITE OF FAT FREDDY'S DROP SONG, "MOTHER MOTHER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.