U.S. And China Both Agree On 'Brexit': U.K. Should Stay In EU

Jun 19, 2016
Originally published on June 24, 2016 2:06 pm
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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

And now it's time for our regular segment, Words You'll Hear. That's where we try to understand stories in the news by parsing some of the words associated with them.

Today's word you've probably heard quite a few times, and you're likely to hear it much more this week. It's Brexit. That's the term coined for Britain's proposed departure - exit - from the European Union. The referendum will be held on Thursday, and polls show that voters in the United Kingdom are deeply divided.

But leaders of the world's two biggest economies are on the same page. President Barack Obama and Chinese leader Xi Jinping, who don't seem to agree on much else these days, think Britain's exiting the EU is a terrible idea. NPR's Frank Langfitt explains from London.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: When President Obama came here in April, his advice to U.K. voters was blunt.

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BARACK OBAMA: Speaking honestly, the outcome of that decision is a matter of deep interest to the United States because it affects our prospects as well. The United States wants a strong United Kingdom as a partner. And the United Kingdom is at its best when it's helping to lead a strong Europe.

LANGFITT: President Xi and Chinese business leaders feel much the same way. Wang Jianlin is one of China's richest men. He owns Wanda, the commercial real estate and movie theater giant. Here's how Wang put it in a speech in February at the University of Oxford.

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WANG JIANLIN: (Through interpreter) In a globalized economy, it's very difficult for the U.K. to go it alone. Don't listen to politicians. Politicians say if the U.K. leaves, things will be better. I'm telling you, leaving could make things worse.

LANGFITT: The vote to leave the EU, nickname Brexit, comes at a delicate time globally. China's economic growth continues to slow. America's presidential race has much of the world on edge. Adam Posen runs the Peterson Institute for International Economics, a Washington-based think tank. He says Brexit is the last thing the Chinese and the Americans want.

ADAM POSEN: They have been working together to try to keep the world stable since 2008. And this is about as big a economic shock as you could get absent a breakup of the euro area. You can just see them there sitting - oh, come on, don't give us this now.

LANGFITT: Many Chinese businesses can't fathom why the U.K. would consider walking away from the EU, the world's largest free-trade club. Some economists see Brexit as a do-it-yourself recession.

YU JIE: The first response, obviously, they are totally shocked. And they still didn't get it. And they still don't understand why.

LANGFITT: Yu Jie is a research fellow at the London School of Economics. She points out Chinese have high-profile investments here. A subsidiary of the Chinese car company Geely makes London's iconic black taxicabs. Shanghai’s Bright Foods owns Weetabix, the popular U.K. cereal brand. Chinese businesses like the U.K. because of the language, the legal system and the easy access to the continent through the European Union.

YU: They obviously consider the U.K. as being a gateway to Europe for years and years.

LANGFITT: Yu says a Brexit would make the U.K. less valuable economically and politically to the Chinese.

Chinese President Xi traveled to London last fall for a grand state visit including a ride in a gilded carriage with the queen to Buckingham Palace. The Chinese leader came to cement what he called a golden era in relations between the two countries. Yu Jie says China wants political help with Europe.

YU: Based on the assumption, U.K. could be the best partner for China in the West. And once this best partner decided to leave the European Union - and this will be a huge blow for Xi Jinping himself.

LANGFITT: Most in the Brexit camp aren't focused on geopolitics. They're more concerned about issues closer to home, such as migration and sovereignty, particularly having to abide by EU laws made in Brussels. Lawrence Webb is a councilman in Havering, a London borough. He's with the pro-Brexit U.K. Independence Party.

LAWRENCE WEBB: There's only one thing we're voting on in this referendum - one thing and one thing alone. And that is - who makes the laws that govern this country? Bearing in mind your audience, do you as an American want the Mexicans making laws over your life?

LANGFITT: Of course not.

WEBB: We don't want the Belgians, the Germans, the French making rules over us.

LANGFITT: Regardless of what the rest of the world thinks, U.K. citizens will render their own judgment on membership in the European Union on Thursday. Frank Langfitt, NPR News, London. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.