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Brexit proves that breaking up is hard to do

Theresa May's cabinet has approved a deal between the United Kingdom and the European Union on terms for Brexit. But the process of gathering consensus was long and difficult. Nick Schifrin speaks to Sebastian Mallaby, author, journalist and senior fellow with the Council on Foreign Relations, about the ‘cold reality shock’ of trying to deliver the referendum’s promises and what might lie ahead.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    As we reported earlier, British Prime Minister Theresa May announced her Cabinet had approved a deal between the United Kingdom and the European Union on the terms for Brexit.

    It comes nearly two-and-a-half years after Britain narrowly voted to leave the E.U.

    Foreign affairs correspondent Nick Schifrin reports on the terms of separation, and why there's still a long way to go.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    In the European Union, when it comes to divorce, as is always the case, the hardest negotiations can be over property, money and the children. And so it is with Brexit, a divorce where there's not only two sides, but the British family is fighting within itself.

    Prime Minister Theresa May is proposing a kind of divorce with a transition period of remaining friends as the best deal possible.

  • Theresa May:

    The choice was this deal, which enables us to take back control and to build a brighter future for our country, or going back to square one, with more division, more uncertainty, and a failure to deliver on the referendum.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    On property, the sticking point has been the border between Northern Ireland, part of the U.K., and the Republic of Ireland, a separate country that's part of the E.U.

    Today, cars can pass easily because there is effectively no border. The Brexit agreement prevents the return of a hard border by temporarily keeping Northern Ireland inside the E.U. Customs Union, avoiding customs checks between Northern Ireland and Ireland.

    On money, Britain would continue to pay the E.U. as much as $80 billion for decades. And, as for the children, British citizens living in the E.U. and E.U. citizens living in Britain, they would maintain current residence and Social Security rights.

    This morning in Parliament, May presented the deal as the kind of divorce mandated by the Brexit referendum.

  • Theresa May:

    We will take back control of our money, laws and borders. We will deliver Brexit, and the United Kingdom is leaving the European Union on the 29th of March 2019.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    But May's critics from her own party say the break isn't hard enough. Leading Brexit proponent Jacob Rees-Mogg wants a divorce that's a cleaner split.

  • Jacob Rees-Mogg:

    Well, she hasn't so much struck a deal as surrendered to Brussels and given into them on everything they want, and tried to frustrate Brexit, that it is not so much the vassal state anymore as the slave state.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Critics on the right argue staying in that E.U. Customs Union prevents the U.K. from making bilateral trade deals, and binds the U.K. to draconian E.U. trade rules.

    And the leader of a member of Theresa May's coalition, Northern Ireland's Democratic Unionist Party head Arlene Foster, fears the Ireland border deal doesn't guarantee Northern Ireland's integrity inside the United Kingdom.

  • Arlene Foster:

    It's a question of whether we are dealing with the United Kingdom in a way that leaves us adrift in the future. And as the leader of Unionism in Northern Ireland, I'm not about to agree to that.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    The next step, is the E.U. must approve, and then the British Parliament has to agree.

    And analysts predict that the most difficult step of a divorce that's already been hard on everyone.

    So, where does the Brexit process go from here, and what about the future of the U.K., the E.U., and the wider European project?

    For that, we turn to Sebastian Mallaby, longtime author and journalist and the Paul Volcker senior fellow for international economics at the Council on Foreign Relations. He joins me from London.

    Sebastian Mallaby, thank you very much for coming on the "NewsHour."

    There is a lot of reporting tonight about how difficult it was for Theresa May to get this through her Cabinet. Why so challenging?

  • Sebastian Mallaby:

    This has been a drawn-out process, during which negotiating a deal with the 27 countries of the European Union has delivered a cold reality shock to those who supported Brexit, because the promises made in the referendum have proven very hard to realize in practice.

    So, we have a deal, at least a draft of a deal, which, ironically, is not pleasing to the people who wanted to leave the European Union. So, those who argued for Brexit are now saying that the Brexit implementation is not good enough.

    And that's why Theresa May has faced enormous resistance from the right flank of her party that wanted a harder break with the rest of Europe.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And so we heard from some of those Brexiters in the story we just played. We also heard from some of the challenges from within her coalition.

    How difficult will it be, therefore, to get through Parliament?

  • Sebastian Mallaby:

    Parliament is going to be a very tough challenge.

    Theresa May's Conservative government only has a majority by virtue of the support of the small Northern Irish party, the DUP. That party is threatening for now that it would vote against the deal. And since the Labor Party will mostly oppose the deal too, it only takes a few rebels from the Conservative ranks, let's say 20 or 30, to really tip this into the territory where you can't imagine it going through.

    And it does look at the moment that that's how it will turn out.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And I want to ask about some of the specific criticism from the Democratic Unionist Party from Northern Ireland, part of the coalition.

    They worry that this deal basically puts them closer to the European Union than it does to the United Kingdom. Do they have a point?

  • Sebastian Mallaby:

    Well, their position is that they didn't want anything, even a hint of anything that could drive a wedge between Northern Ireland and mainland Britain.

    For now, that isn't happening, because the interim deal is that the whole of Britain stays inside the E.U. Customs Union. And, therefore, there's a sort of hypothetical, theoretical objection which the Northern Irish have. It isn't actually something that's going to bite anytime soon.

    So it's possible, in terms of the politics, that the Northern Irish constituency will be persuaded in the end to back Theresa May's deal. And that could make all the difference in terms of parliamentary passage.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Let's zoom out a little bit.

    E.U. officials who I have talked to, who talk publicly say that we had to exact some revenge, we had to make this process difficult on the United Kingdom, in order to prove that — to other countries who might think about exiting that they shouldn't try this.

    Do you think the E.U. officials who have said that, have they succeeded?

  • Sebastian Mallaby:

    It's true that there is a populist government in Italy. There are populists on the rise in Germany and so forth.

    And, therefore, there is a desire to teach those populists the consequences of their anti-E.U. rhetoric. But there's also been a desire, I think, particularly in Germany, to try to have as decent a relationship with Britain as they can.

    In fact, the vindictiveness has been a mixed picture. And I don't really view the outcome of this deal as the product of European vindiction. They had less to fear from a zero deal scenario than Britain did. And so the Europeans did get more of what they wanted.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And the pressure on the E.U. isn't only, of course, Brexit. You mentioned populism. Migration through Europe has helped push German Chancellor Angela Merkel out of her job.

    What is the state right now of the European integration project?

  • Sebastian Mallaby:

    I mean, it's pretty fragile.

    And so when you look at a highly indebted economy like Italy, which, unlike Greece, is too big to be bail out — it's too big to bail. And right now, it has a populist government. The economic path is looking pretty dicey.

    And so you could easily imagine a resumption of the Eurozone crisis of a few years ago. So, that's tension number one in Europe. And the second, as you mentioned, is migration, which has temporarily abated. There was the big surge in 2015.

    But now — in 2016. But now that's gone down. It will come back again. And so I foresee that these arguments about migration, tensions over the single currency are going to come back, and it's going to be tough for Europe.

    The ambitions of a few years ago were, let's carry on deepening. Let's carry on even enlarging. That has gone away.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Sebastian Mallaby with the Council on Foreign Relations, thank you very much.

  • Sebastian Mallaby:

    Thank you.

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