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U.K. Ambassador To The U.S. Says He's Feeling 'Optimistic' But Not 'Starry-Eyed' About Brexit

Union flags line the Mall leading to Buckingham Palace in central London on January 31, 2020 on the day that the UK formally leaves the European Union.(Glyn Kirk/AFP/Getty Images)
Union flags line the Mall leading to Buckingham Palace in central London on January 31, 2020 on the day that the UK formally leaves the European Union.(Glyn Kirk/AFP/Getty Images)

After nearly four years of debate over Brexit, the United Kingdom is finally leaving the European Union.

The official split is set for 11 p.m. local time Friday night — and there won’t be an extension, says Michael Tatham, the U.K.’s acting ambassador to the United States.

“We’re coming up to a deadline in a few hours time and it’s not going to be extended,” he says. “The U.K. is going to leave the European Union.”

Once the U.K. officially leaves, an 11-month implementation period will begin to give the U.K. time to negotiate a trade agreement with the EU, he says.

Despite the challenges that may come, Tatham sees the break as an opportunity for both sides.

“For over four decades, the U.K. has been part of the EU and integrated into EU frameworks and structures,” he says. “And so it will be a big deal stepping away from all of that.”

Interview Highlights

On whether leaving the EU marks a day of celebration for the U.K.

“I think our view is that this is neither a day for celebration nor for commiseration. It’s a day for looking forward and for approaching the challenges that will face us as the U.K. outside the EU in a spirit of confidence, in a spirit of purpose and in a spirit of calmness. And I think the prime minister and the government want to move forward on that basis, trying to bring the country together behind the opportunities that present themselves for the U.K. in a post-Brexit world.”

On what challenges he’s concerned about

“I think there will be certainly lots of challenges that come from that. But I wouldn’t put the emphasis on the challenges. I would put the emphasis on the opportunities. This is a big change, but it’s a change that brings with it opportunities — opportunities in the political space, opportunities in the trading space and opportunities for the U.K. on the international stage as an international actor.”

On what the U.K.’s trade relationship with the EU will look like

“I think one important point to note is that we leave the EU in a few hours time, but we go into what’s called an implementation period. And during that implementation period, we will continue to operate essentially within EU regulatory frameworks. And the purpose here is to give ourselves breathing space during which we will negotiate with the EU with the aim of reaching an agreement with the European Union on what our future trading arrangements will be. So I think the objective we are working toward is to use the 11 months or so of the implementation period to negotiate purposefully, constructively with the EU to agree those future trading arrangements, which will then kick in at the point that the implementation period ends at the end of this year. That is the objective we have in the scenario that we are working toward. And I think it’s a scenario which are partners in the EU broadly share. So I think there’s a sense of convergence around trying to achieve that.”


On his ideal trading relationship with the EU

“We’ll have to see where those negotiations go. But I think the important point to note is that Prime Minister [Boris] Johnson and this government have been very clear that the arrangement they envisage is not one of regulatory alignment with just a few exceptions. It’s of the U.K. having control over its own laws and seeking a free trade agreement with the EU. So what I would expect is that there will be some areas of change and some areas of continuity. But I wouldn’t want to go much further than that because, you know, obviously we’ll have to see how those negotiations unfold.”

On those who doubt the 11-month implementation period will help settle the differences between the U.K. and EU

“What I would say candidly is, yes, of course, it’s been a difficult period for the U.K. Delivering Brexit after the referendum result was a difficult and protracted process. It created a lot of political debate and division within the U.K. But again, you know, I think I approach it through a positive mindset. We are here on the eve of leaving the European Union. We are doing that with a withdrawal agreement in place that’s been negotiated with the EU that charts a clear way forward, that provides continuity where that’s really important.

“So I’m not saying it’s been an easy or smooth process, but what I am saying is that getting to this point, we’ve managed to reconcile differences with the EU, and approach withdrawal from an agreed standpoint with an agreement in place. And I think there’s a good prospect as well that we can do that in respect to future trading arrangements over the next 11 months. So as I said at the start, I think the mood in the U.K. government is one of purposefulness, confidence and optimism that we can make progress on those negotiations over the course of this year.”

On reaching a trade agreement with the United States

“I do have confidence and I am optimistic that we can make good progress in those trade negotiations. But equally, you know, I’m not starry-eyed here and I’m not naive. We know we understand that trade negotiations and trying to reach a trade agreement is a complex and challenging undertaking. We absolutely get that. And we also get the fact that there will be some difficult areas under negotiation. My prime minister, Prime Minister Johnson, has already been clear that there’ll be important principles which we’ll be looking to uphold and red lines which we will need to defend. So, of course, it’s a big challenge, but it is one that we approach with confidence. And from my perspective, that’s for two reasons.

“Firstly, because there’s a high level of political enthusiasm for this project, both in Washington and in the U.K. Both the U.S. president and the U.K. prime minister have expressed strong support for this. And I think it helps significantly having that strong political support and goodwill and being able to channel that into the negotiations. The second thing I would say is this: I genuinely believe that the free trade agreement between the U.S. and the U.K. is one that can be good for both countries. We’re not looking for charity or altruism here. We accept that both countries will focus on this through their national interests. But we think that the big picture is one in which enhanced trading arrangements, enhanced free trading arrangements between the U.K. and the U.S. is good for both our countries. So when we get into those difficult areas, I hope that on both sides we’ll be able to keep an eye on that positive big picture and be guided by the gains and opportunities that we want to realize here.


On if U.S. politics could get in the way of a trade deal with the U.K.

“There are going to be political dimensions and the political context on both sides of the Atlantic in both the U.K. and the U.S. And again, I don’t want to be naive. Those will no doubt create dynamics at various points in the negotiations around substance and timeline and so on. But I come back to what I said, you know, our view is that this is something which is good for the U.K. and for the U.S., not for any particular government in the U.K. or administration in the U.S. … wider benefits to both our economies and both our countries. So there will be context there will be political pressures. But, you know, we believe that it will be possible to sustain the negotiations and to make progress through those.”

Alex Ashlock produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Todd MundtAllison Hagan adapted it for the web.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.