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The European Union And The Brexit Vote


After a messy year-and-a-half-long battle, European leaders today signed off on a divorce deal for the United Kingdom, which is leaving the European Union in March. British Prime Minister Theresa May looked exhausted but sounded happy at the summit in Brussels where the 28 member states met today.


PRIME MINISTER THERESA MAY: I'm full of optimism about the future of our country. And I believe that we can - with this good deal with the European Union, we will remain friends and neighbors. I've said many times we're leaving the EU, but we're not leaving Europe. We will continue to have that good, close partnership and relationship.

PFEIFFER: NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson is in Brussels covering the story and joins us now. Hi, Soraya.


PFEIFFER: What exactly did the EU leaders sign today?

NELSON: Well, there were two things. One is a divorce treaty that's about 600 pages long. And the other thing was a political declaration that's nonbinding but sort of is a roadmap, if you will, to future relations. This bigger document, the treaty, does buy everybody more time. So Britain gets - or the U.K. gets to stay in the EU single market. The border between Northern Ireland and Ireland, which is a rather sensitive one, stays open. And the U.K. agrees to pay its financial commitments, whether it's pensions - that sort of thing - $50 billion worth - to the EU. It's really the most important step today in Brexit - this agreement. And it's one that many European leaders thought would never happen. But a lot more needs to happen at this point before there's a smooth transition, if you will.

PFEIFFER: Both of the key things you mentioned, the divorce papers and then the political declaration on future relations, were unanimously approved. But what was the mood like at the summit?

NELSON: Well, Theresa May may have been happy. But I think the rest of the leaders were pretty gray, like the skies here in Brussels today. I mean, you definitely didn't have any champagne corks popping. The head of the EU Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, says divorce is always sad and that everyone pays a price. But he was happy that everybody in the block at least could come to this agreement, which was very hard-fought. Everyone's also relieved that they may be spared this so-called crashing out of the European Union by the U.K. if there wasn't a deal, which would've really caused a lot of problems with trade, with travel. It would have cost a lot more than what's happening now. And then the remaining EU members know that it's important to show a united front with the British prime minister so that she can get this deal approved at home.

PFEIFFER: The summit was also almost canceled because of Spain. What happened there?

NELSON: Well, this is an old argument - 300 years old, to be exact. Basically, Spain wants to have a say in whatever happens to Gibraltar, which, of course, is controlled by the U.K. and has been for the past 300 years, as I mentioned. But Spain believes that Gibraltar is its own. And so what happened is the Spanish prime minister threatened to scuttle the deal unless this was put in writing. So it was sort of a last-minute negotiation. In the end, the U.K. agreed. But it doesn't really change anything because Spain already had prior consent on these sort of matters.

PFEIFFER: And briefly, Soraya, Theresa May still has a pretty tough battle ahead, which is getting Parliament to approve this. What happens if Parliament doesn't approve it?

NELSON: Well, it's definitely going to be a disaster for both sides. I mean, she could go back to the EU, although the EU made it pretty clear today - Jean-Claude Juncker, again, said this is the only deal on the table. She could resign, which is something she said she's not considering at this point. Or she could face a no-confidence vote. But what's least likely is that this whole Brexit idea would go to a second referendum, which some people are calling for. So it's going to be very tense for the next few weeks while this vote is sought in Parliament in London.

PFEIFFER: That's NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson in Brussels. Thanks, Soraya.

NELSON: You're welcome, Sacha. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Special correspondent Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson is based in Berlin. Her reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered, and read at From 2012 until 2018 Nelson was NPR's bureau chief in Berlin. She won the ICFJ 2017 Excellence in International Reporting Award for her work in Central and Eastern Europe, North Africa, the Middle East and Afghanistan.