RAY SUAREZ, HOST:
Last year, the United Kingdom kicked off an era of uncertainty in the Western world when it voted to leave the European Union. Yesterday, the U.K. took a major step forward on the road to Brexit when European leaders agreed to talks with the U.K. on a new trading relationship with the EU. To make sense of yesterday's decision and how it fits with the turbulent last year and a half, we turn to NPR's Frank Langfitt, who's just returned to his post in London from Brussels, the headquarters city of the European Union. Hi, Frank.
FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Hey, Ray.
SUAREZ: Why does the agreement to have trade talks matter so much?
LANGFITT: Well, one thing, it sort of tells the U.K. is continuing to move forward towards leaving the EU. This is continuing to go ahead. But, you know, if you look at the - kind of the big picture, it's symbolic of changes that really started in the summer of 2016. And a big change has happened since then. You remember that Brexit vote? It was a big shock. Stocks dropped around the world. And one reason was seeing the U.K. actually walk away from something that it had helped build - this sort of Western post-World-War-II architecture for peace and prosperity in Europe. And seeing it walk away, really, and saying basically, you know, we're better off on our own, that really rattled people here and elsewhere.
And then you had these right-wing populists in France and the Netherlands, they were pushing to leave the EU. And there was this fear in Brussels that, you know, this 28-nation trading bloc was actually going to fall apart and risk a lot more instability in this part of the world.
SUAREZ: I've been in Britain a couple of times since the vote and talked to people at each time who felt that there was still a chance that it might not happen. How does the decision look today and has it entered a sort of point of no return?
LANGFITT: Well, that's a great question. I mean, first, it's not going well at all. You know, U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May is much weaker than she was. So Brexit has ended up really kind of tearing up politics here. In terms of a point of no return, that's an excellent question. There is a sense here that if they tried to do it, people would be so upset because this came out of a referendum, and they would feel that this was denying the democratic will of the people here in the United Kingdom.
On the other hand, you talk to people in the EU, they might welcome them back if they changed their mind. But they only have so much time. You know, this is all going to run out. They have to leave in March of 2019. But everybody's going to be watching it very closely. And I think key to it also will be the economics of the United Kingdom, which has been suffering since the Brexit decision.
SUAREZ: Now to state the obvious, but it's never a bad idea. The U.S. is not a member of the EU. Why should Americans be paying attention to Brexit? Does it mean anything on this side of the Atlantic?
LANGFITT: I think it does in a way that people wouldn't necessarily imagine, and that's that Brexit is weakening America's closest ally abroad. You remember, you know, we fought a war with the Brits. We speak the same language, have these shared values. And with President Trump looking inward himself, you know, the U.S. influence is declining worldwide as well as this very important power of ours. Then if you look more broadly, you've got a more aggressive China, a more assertive Russia. And there is a sense that one thing the West doesn't need right now is fragmentation.
SUAREZ: Once the British have managed to extricate themselves from the EU, will they be looking to make a deal with the United States?
LANGFITT: They do. And, you know, it's really interesting. Theresa May keeps saying, oh, this is going to bail us out. We're going to do really well with a deal with the U.S. The fact of the matter is trade barriers are already very low with the U.S. And you're - she's also going to be dealing with Donald Trump who's not known for giving, you know, sweetheart deals to people. He crafts himself as a very, very tough negotiator. So the idea that the U.S. economy is going to really help out Britain, I think most people here - certainly, economists think that's not very likely.
SUAREZ: That's NPR's Frank Langfitt in London. Thanks a lot, Frank.
LANGFITT: Happy to do it, Ray.
(SOUNDBITE OF ADAM BEN EZRA'S "CAN'T STOP RUNNING") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.