How The U.K. Government Is Trying To Fix Divisions Caused By Brexit

Feb 14, 2018
Originally published on February 14, 2018 7:05 pm
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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

It's been a year and a half since Britain voted to leave the European Union, and most British people still don't have much of an idea of how this major political change will actually play out. The British government and much of the country are bitterly divided. There are even calls for a second referendum on the issue. Today, Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson gave a speech in which he warned against reneging on Brexit.

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BORIS JOHNSON: I believe that would be a disastrous mistake that would lead to permanent ineradicable feelings of betrayal. We cannot and will not let it happen.

SHAPIRO: NPR's Lauren Frayer is in London. Hi, Lauren.

LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: Hi, Ari.

SHAPIRO: What was the reason for Boris Johnson giving this speech today?

FRAYER: Well, government ministers need to explain their Brexit plans to the country, to reach out to opponents and try to heal these big rifts in U.K. society, and they're under the gun to do so. The EU has set deadlines for this process. Outlines of an exit deal are due next month, then a trade deal later this year. As you said, it's been a year and a half with very little progress. And now they've got to make some serious headway in a matter of months. And if not, the U.K. could crash out of the EU in March 2019. That means goods piling up on borders because there are no customs procedures, uncertainty for European citizens here in the U.K. and Britons abroad in other European countries.

SHAPIRO: There are deep divides in British society over this. Is a series of speeches likely to bridge them?

FRAYER: That's difficult to know. I mean, government officials themselves disagree on how to go through this process. There are soft and hard Brexit campaigns. Johnson is in the latter. He wants complete separation from the EU, its customs union and its single trading market. Theresa May has asked the Brexiteers, including Johnson, in her cabinet to go out and make their case to the country. We'll see if it works.

SHAPIRO: Boris Johnson is famously flamboyant. Many people became aware of him when he was mayor of London. He's known for over-the-top statements. Was this speech typical of that Boris Johnson?

FRAYER: Typical Boris, and as you say, he goes by a single moniker - Boris. It's difficult to call him Johnson on second reference.

SHAPIRO: Right.

FRAYER: He is media savvy. He's eccentric. Today he was quoting Latin in his speech. As usual, he quoted the Gettysburg Address today. But he is a hard-liner, one of the architects of Brexit. He famously promised Britons could have their cake and eat it, too. Today he said he'll make sure Brits can have those raucous bachelor parties in European cities. He generally, though, uses very divisive language. In the past, he has compared European Union rules with Hitler and the Nazis. Today, though, he struck a different tone.

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JOHNSON: I think I've always been extremely moderate in my language and loving and caring. And that's - that is my intention. I do think that sometimes the discourse does become a bit polemical, and I think it would be much, much better if we could all get together and get behind this project.

FRAYER: Again, typical Boris, calling himself loving and caring, not particularly humble.

SHAPIRO: Right.

FRAYER: He said Britons who feel European can still feel that way. The government's own estimates show that Brexit will hurt the economy, but Johnson said this is an opportunity. He called for hope, not fear.

SHAPIRO: A year and a half after the vote, is this still something people talk about all the time? How divided are people?

FRAYER: It really is. Look at the tabloids, which are still pretty influential here. When judges ruled that Parliament had to vote on the Brexit process, a Daily Mail headline - that's one of the biggest newspapers here - called those judges enemies of the people. The American-Hungarian billionaire George Soros donated money to an anti-Brexit group, and he got vilified in the press, accused of a secret plot to meddle and thwart democracy.

Brexiteers, on the other hand, are branded as anti-immigrant, racist, possibly not thinking through this whole project. There's been a rise of hate crimes against immigrants since the Brexit vote. Some EU migrants have up and left. It's caused shortages - labor shortages in farm work, in nursing, even banking. People put their Brexit vote - how they voted in that referendum - on their dating profiles.

SHAPIRO: That's NPR's Lauren Frayer in London. Thanks, Lauren.

FRAYER: You're welcome, Ari. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.