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Britain's Prime Minister Must Guide EU Exit While Keeping U.K. Unified


Of all the tough political jobs in the world, Theresa May's could rank right up there. Britain's new prime minister came to power in the wake of Britain's decision to leave the European Union. Now she has her work cut out for her to disentangle the U.K. from the EU while minimizing the damage to the British economy, which is already feeling the effects. NPR's Frank Langfitt reports from London.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Here on the streets of the British capital, many feel the future of the United Kingdom rests on May's performance.

SOFIA PISANELLO: It's going to be the making or the breaking of this country.

LANGFITT: Sofia Pisanello, a British-Iranian who works in public policy here, says May faces a tricky balancing act.

PISANELLO: She's going to have to help the country accept the recession. She's going to try and keep unity in this country, which is not a given.

LANGFITT: Like many Londoners, Daniel Cochrane, who was strolling nearby, has confidence in May.

DANIEL COCHRANE: She's got great diplomatic skills. I think she's got a lot of respect within Europe.

LANGFITT: With that said, would Cochrane be willing to take on a job like hers?

COCHRANE: With Brexit? No way (laughter). No way.

MUJTABA RAHMAN: On the scale of zero to 10, 11.

LANGFITT: This is Mujtaba Rahman, and this is his rating of the challenges May faces. Rahman works for Eurasia Group, an international political and investment consultancy. He says many Brexit voters are adamant that May control immigration and U.K. payments to the EU and rid British courts of European influence.

RAHMAN: Now, the problem is if Theresa May strikes a deal respecting those three red lines, that will immediately limit the U.K.'s access to the European Free Trade Area and the single market, which will have a big negative impact on the U.K. economy. So the essential trade-off is in order to control immigration, are we willing to accept a smaller economy?

LANGFITT: In fact, Britain already has. An actual Brexit is years away, but the vote to leave the EU has already depressed housing prices, and the pound remains weighed down against the dollar. Rahman says in exchange for limits on immigration, May will be forced to sacrifice the access of certain U.K. sectors to the European market. Everyone expects the city of London, the United Kingdom's Wall Street, to take a hit, in part, Rahman says, because cities from Dublin to Paris want to poach business.

RAHMAN: I think it's opportunistic on some level. I think a number of countries are looking to extract domestic economic gain from Brexit. And part of that will be assuming a very tough negotiating stance.

LANGFITT: Rahman thinks May will have an easier time in other areas, such as defending the U.K.'s auto sector. After all, European car companies import into the U.K. market and don't want to get hit with retaliatory tariffs. Getting all this right, Rahman says, is crucial.

RAHMAN: The stakes are huge for the U.K. but also for the rest of Europe. For the U.K., you're talking about the integrity of the union. I mean, a bad deal with the rest of Europe will absolutely inspire secessionist forces, certainly in Scotland. Even if the negotiation is a good one, The U.K. will suffer.

LANGFITT: Gina Miller, who runs an investment management company here, hopes it never comes to this. Miller is lead plaintiff in a suit to force a parliamentary debate before the government formally moves the split from the EU next year.

GINA MILLER: My stance was always - remain, reform and review our relationship with the EU. And I believe we still have the opportunity to do that. It's about having a different relationship, not walking away.

LANGFITT: The vote to leave was about far more than the EU. People in much of England felt left behind economically and ignored by politicians in London.

MILLER: What our prime minister has to do is start addressing those issues that are plaguing the U.K. And by doing so, I think she will begin to change people's minds. And they will begin to realize that the EU is not all bad.

LANGFITT: In the short run, it may be too late for that. Miller's suit is due to be heard in October, and Parliament would be loathed to challenge the results of a popular referendum. In the long run, Miller, like others, is putting her faith in May.

MILLER: I think out of everyone we have in the U.K. at the moment, she is possibly the best hand to be on the wheel. I know many people who say that they've met her and she seems very capable.

LANGFITT: A former home secretary known for businesslike efficiency, May was seen as the only adult left standing after the country's post-referendum chaos. Now her skills will be tested by the country's greatest political challenge in decades. Frank Langfitt, NPR News, London. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Frank Langfitt is NPR's London correspondent. He covers the UK and Ireland, as well as stories elsewhere in Europe.