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European Leaders Gather In Brussels To Work On A Brexit Deal

NOEL KING, HOST:

There were hopes for a deal to ease the departure of the United Kingdom from the EU. But those hopes are fading after a summit in Brussels failed to seal a deal. Then EU officials say they are now preparing for the worst-case scenario.

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PRIME MINISTER MARK RUTTE: We are hiring lots of people for our customs. And the commission, we have asked tonight to work with even more vigor on the no-deal scenario, not that we expect that to happen. But we have to stand prepared.

KING: That is Netherlands Prime Minister Mark Rutte. NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson has been following all of this from Brussels. She's with us now.

Hi, Soraya.

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON, BYLINE: Good morning, Noel.

KING: So we should not underplay this summit. There were some high expectations that this might finally seal a Brexit deal. Right?

NELSON: Yes. It was definitely characterized as the make or break of whether there would be a Brexit deal. But instead, everybody backpedaled. And in fact, some of the the leaders of the EU went out for beer and and french fries to sort of underscore how relaxed they were at this point and how they had no expectations anything was going to happen.

KING: Wow. That is some telegraphing right there.

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KING: So what went wrong exactly?

NELSON: Well, it's the same old issue that's been holding up this deal for many months now. And that is - what happens between the Republic of Ireland, which is part of the EU, and Northern Ireland, which is a province in United Kingdom? You know, do you put a hard border there, do you not? People are very concerned, if there is a hard border there, that it would threaten the peace deal. So they don't want that. But they just can't come to an agreement where they should put the border, who should run that border, how the customs union would work. And it just - they don't seem to be getting any closer on that point.

KING: Well, the EU had explicitly asked Theresa May to come to Brussels and give them some new ideas that would help end all of this. Did she bring anything?

NELSON: She did not. But what's really interesting is that there seems to be a lot of sympathy for her even though she didn't. For example, the Luxembourg prime minister, Xavier Bettel, said he realizes that Prime Minister May is in a tough spot - at least to a point, he realizes that.

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PRIME MINISTER XAVIER BETTEL: We exactly know that Theresa May is in a tricky situation because she's got huge pressure in the U.K. and with Westminster. So we need to find a right balance. But we cannot allow cherry-picking and destroy, in fact, internal market and destroy the rules.

NELSON: The Luxembourg leader says he and other EU leaders are counting on their negotiator, Michel Barnier, to help break this logjam.

KING: Well, we heard the Netherlands prime minister saying his country and the European Commission are basically prepping for that March 2019 Brexit date to arrive without a deal. If that happens, what would that look like?

NELSON: Well, it would be absolute chaos because you're talking about having to create new customs unions - or new customs borders, basically - you know, have security people to vet people with passports coming through. You're talking about way increased costs to various countries. Germany, for example, is estimating more than $110 billion in costs that they would incur if Brexit were to happen, in terms of increased taxes and that sort of thing. So it's just something that nobody wants on either side of this equation.

KING: Well, how likely is that chaos to happen at this point?

NELSON: Well, everyone is still saying that they're cautiously optimistic it won't happen...

KING: OK.

NELSON: ...That they will come to a deal, possibly in December. So it's something that they're going to work towards. At this point, the negotiators have to come back to the table and try to hammer out something that everyone can live with.

KING: So still a lot to be done. NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson.

Soraya, thank you so much.

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