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As Brexit sinks in, division remains in the United Kingdom

The United Kingdom formally left the European Union over night as Prime Minister Boris Johnson vowed to bring the country together, more than three years after voters narrowly approved Brexit. But divisions remain, and trade negotiations between the U.K. and E.U. are just beginning. Frank Langfitt, NPR's London correspondent and author of "The Shanghai Free Taxi," joins Hari Sreenivasan with more.

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  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Joining us now via Skype is NPR's London correspondent Frank Langfitt. Frank, you were out there on the streets yesterday when people were out there on this momentous occasion. What were they saying?

  • Frank Langfitt:

    Well, it really depended on who you talk to and where you went. I was down at Parliament Square last night right in front of Big Ben, where there was thousands of people. Some of them were wearing Union Jacks as capes around their shoulders. They were thrilled by this. They felt that this was their Independence Day. Other places you went, there were candlelight vigils. People, I think, sad, but accepting this, knowing that remaining in the EU is not going to happen. And even a few clashes I saw between Remainders and Leavers. So there's still, you could really see a lot of the divisions still in this country.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    OK, so here you are waking up in this post-E.U. Britain. And if you you're a Leaver, well the roses haven't started to bloom, and if you're a Remainer, the earth hasn't opened up and swallowed the entire island. So what is the actual impact on a day to day basis?

  • Frank Langfitt:

    Right now, almost nothing. Nothing has changed this morning. And the reason for that is the last thing that the United Kingdom or the E.U. would need is some sort of abrupt, you know, severing of the relationship. They now have 11 months in a transition period to try to work out a new free trade arrangement between the both sides. And that's going to be very difficult, in fact, much more difficult, if you can imagine it, than the last three and a half years that led to paralysis in the government here. The European Union would like a much closer relationship. The United Kingdom, they want independence, and that means they'll probably have to pay for it with taxes and trade barriers.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    And that means that also when you say renegotiate, that means with each member nation?

  • Frank Langfitt:

    No, they'll be doing it entirely with the E.U. But what's really important here, Hari that's important to remember, is the E.U. Will now be 460 — uh, 450 million consumers and about 60-some here. So this is a very imbalanced relationship. The EU has a lot of leverage. Also, there's this short window to do this. So that's a lot of pressure on the United Kingdom if they don't want eventually crash out at the end of this year.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Right. And then what about Scotland in the middle of all this?

  • Frank Langfitt:

    This is absolutely fascinating. What's going on with Scotland right now is, as you have the Brexiteers cheering, you know, in Parliament Square, you have people up in Scotland saying, 'We never voted for Brexit. We don't want to leave the EU. We want independence. We want a referendum as soon as we can get one.' Boris Johnson has said the prime minister will not do that anytime soon. But it's conceivable within in the next two or three years, there could be an independence referendum. And I think the nightmare scenario for the UK is, you know, people like Boris Johnson, the Brexiteers, they get Brexit, they leave the E.U. And they lose Scotland in the process.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    And how important is Scotland in this and why does this matter?

  • Frank Langfitt:

    Well, I've also spent quite a bit of time in Northern Ireland. They're watching Scotland. There is a movement now, more, more energy to eventually reunify with the island of Ireland. So you can feel things really straining here under Brexit. And there could be a domino effect. It's not out of the question.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Are there parallels between what's been happening in the U.K. In the past couple of years and what's perhaps happened in the United States quite some time ago?

  • Frank Langfitt:

    Tons of comparisons in terms of the 2016 election and here. I find often as I travel, particularly, I spent a lot of time in the north of England, these are post-industrial communities. And when you have conversations with people up there, Hari, I mean, they say the same sort of things you would hear in Michigan and Pennsylvania. There is a sense of a country changing too fast. Suffering from globalization. They feel that they've been left behind by elites in London. It's all the same kind of language, but it is very heartfelt. And what Boris Johnson was able to do in December was to go up there and speak to people, promised to get Brexit done and then reinvest in the north. And that was the way he was able to win a big election. So what he did up there is not dissimilar at all to what Donald Trump did in the upper Midwest in 2016.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    So here he is now, at least part one of getting Brexit done, making the official paperwork, mailing that in is over. But really, you're saying that the next 11 months could be harder than the last three years.

  • Frank Langfitt:

    Much more difficult. Negotiating over, renegotiating all of these sectors, whether it's agriculture or automotive. I think it is going to be much more difficult. And the worst part about it is there's such a narrow window of opportunity. Normally with these complex trade deals, they take years and years. Boris Johnson has said, 'eleven months and we're out.'

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    And what are the economic impacts? Are they being felt yet in the UK?

  • Frank Langfitt:

    They've already, you know, in a sense, Hari, the United Kingdom is already poorer. Right now, the pound is still 10 percent below the highs that it had just before the Brexit vote. So people have already felt that. I will say employment is very good. Unemployment is very low. But growth is very low. And there are, economists that I talked to are concerned since there's still so much uncertainty about what kind of trade deal that they get here that they could slip into recession sometime later this year.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    NPR's London correspondent Frank Langfitt joining us via Skype tonight. Thanks so much.

  • Frank Langfitt:

    You're very welcome Hari.

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