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Britain Gets OK To Start Negotiating Exit With European Union


The United Kingdom is one step closer to leaving the European Union. Today in Brussels, European leaders finally approved talks on a future trading relationship between Britain and the EU. But as NPR's Frank Langfitt reports, the hard part lies ahead.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Today marked the end of the beginning of Brexit. The U.K. has agreed to pay a divorce bill of about $50 billion and to not build a border on the island of Ireland. In exchange, the EU has agreed to talk about a future trade relationship, which is crucial to the British economy. Donald Tusk is president of the European Council.


DONALD TUSK: We should adopt guidelines and start negotiations next year. I trust that the unity on the EU side will continue.

LANGFITT: Back in Britain, U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May struck an optimistic tone.


PRIME MINISTER THERESA MAY: There's still more to do, but we're well on the road to delivering a Brexit that will make Britain prosperous, strong and secure.

LANGFITT: In fact, observers say negotiations will be fraught and take years. The United Kingdom must first decide what kind of new trade relationship it wants. Andre Sapir says that won't be easy because Prime Minister May's government is split over how sharp a break to make with the EU's giant collective market. Sapir teaches economics at the Free University of Brussels.

ANDRE SAPIR: She has been fudging some of the issues. That's fine. But, you know, the time has come when she cannot fudge it for much more because now we are entering into the real negotiation. And she has to choose. She has to announce to a partner - what is it we are negotiating?

LANGFITT: Because of its size, the EU has the leverage to drive a hard bargain. Jean de Ruyt, a former Belgian ambassador to the EU, says if European negotiators push too hard, they risk toppling Prime Minister May, who's weak at home.

JEAN DE RUYT: Honestly, they want to reinforce her. She leads encouragement. Who else could we have as an interlocuter?

LANGFITT: The EU's given the British government several months to sort out its position. Donald Tusk, head of the European Council, says then, an even more challenging round of talks will begin. Frank Langfitt, NPR News, Brussels. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.