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EU Threatens Legal Action Against Britain Over Brexit Deal

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

The United Kingdom and the European Union are having an ugly divorce. The U.K. formally left the European Union in January. And this week, the U.K. and EU have been at each other's throats over the terms of their divorce and a new free trade deal. The dispute could end up damaging both economies just as the coronavirus begins to spread again in Europe. NPR's London correspondent Frank Langfitt joins us. Frank, thanks for being with us.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Hey. Good morning, Scott.

SIMON: So what led to this open confrontation this week?

LANGFITT: Well, you know, everything was - I wouldn't say it was going along swimmingly, but they were working through a new free trade agreement, and there were some troubles there. But the problem is actually the divorce agreement, like you were saying.

So this week, Boris Johnson, the prime minister who signed this divorce agreement, pushed it through his own Parliament, basically suddenly comes along and says, I don't like it; I want to change it. And this is an international treaty. It's a very big deal to break it. And Brandon Lewis - he's the U.K. secretary for Northern Ireland - he admitted as much in the House of Commons earlier this week.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BRANDON LEWIS: I would say to my honorable friend that, yes, this does break international law in a very specific and limited way. We are taking the...

SIMON: What does Johnson want to change and why?

LANGFITT: Well, so the problem he has with this is that the deal would - the divorce agreement basically could limit the U.K.'s ability to pump money into Northern Irish businesses and help them be more competitive. The EU fears that this would actually disadvantage its businesses.

And the agreement also could require - probably will require customs checks, to some degree, between Northern Ireland and Great Britain, which, of course, are both part of the U.K. Now, Johnson says, even though he knew this eight months ago, that this threatens to carve up the country, which is a bit of hyperbole, but I understand what he's getting at. Now, today in the London Telegraph, the newspaper, he said, citing no direct evidence, that the EU is now threatening to blockade food shipments between Great Britain across the Irish Sea to Northern Ireland.

SIMON: And what's the reaction been like in the EU?

LANGFITT: We haven't heard anything officially, but I think in Brussels, people are in disbelief that he would make this kind of claim. And I've covered Johnson now for more than four years, and on crucial matters in this country, he has said things that have been completely false, and the British public is very aware of this and his tendency to do so.

Now, European parliamentary members - they're saying if Johnson doesn't back off, they're going to veto any free trade deal. There's also a rebellion brewing against Johnson in his own Parliament. And according to the Financial Times, there's this new WhatsApp group from some of Johnson's own Conservative Party members in Parliament called, what the fudge is going on?

SIMON: (Laughter).

LANGFITT: Of course, it's not...

SIMON: Yeah.

LANGFITT: ...Really fudge.

SIMON: Fudge is a favorite confection in the U.K. Frank, what's your read on why this has reached a head now and where it's going?

LANGFITT: So everybody's been talking about this, of course, in the U.K. who follows politics. And there are a number of theories. One theory is that Johnson is threatening to blow things up so he thinks he can get a better free trade deal from the EU. The other is that he doesn't actually want a deal at all and he's going to use this to blame the EU when everything comes crashing down later this fall.

Now, a good question would be, why wouldn't Boris Johnson want a free trade deal with such a huge market like the EU? And the answer could be that all along, Brexit was about taking back power from the EU. And if the U.K. walks away at the end of this year with no deal, it will have that control. But it's also going to have customs checks and tariffs that will damage the EU economy and the U.K. economy. And this is at a time, Scott, when, actually, the economy here's starting to do a lot better. It's actually climbing out of the recession we've had because of the coronavirus.

SIMON: NPR's Frank Langfitt in London, thanks so much.

LANGFITT: Happy to do it, Scott.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.