ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
British Prime Minister Theresa May was in Brussels today to make her final pitch to fellow European leaders. She's asking for talks on a new free-trade deal between Britain and the European Union. A vote on that tomorrow is expected to go Britain's way. It's a decisive moment in the country's struggle to leave the EU. As NPR's Frank Langfitt reports, that path is likely to become even more difficult.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Chanting in foreign language).
FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Big crowds turned out in the rain here last night to demand better treatment for migrants in Europe as a reminder what a powerful issue migration has become. Last year, Britons voted to leave the European Union in part to keep migrants out. Now the U.K. is desperate to look ahead. And despite some pushback in her own party, Prime Minister May says she's moving forward.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
PRIME MINISTER THERESA MAY: Actually the EU withdrawal bill is making good progress through the House of Commons. And we're on course to deliver on Brexit. And I'm looking forward to discussing that deep and special partnership for the future.
LANGFITT: But beginning to work out a new trade relationship with the European Union as Britain is walking away from this one is going to be hard. I caught up with Roland Freudenstein at a Brussels pub. He's policy director at the Martens Centre, a think tank.
ROLAND FREUDENSTEIN: I think we ain't seen nothing yet in terms of tough negotiations because the British government still believes it can have a cake and eat it.
LANGFITT: Freudenstein says Britain wants to continue to trade as freely as possible inside the EU's enormous market but without allowing the free flow of migrants as the EU insists.
FREUDENSTEIN: Important people in the British government still believe they can carve out a deal where Britain gets some kind of access without having to pay what it considers a price.
LANGFITT: What does Brussels think of that point of view?
FREUDENSTEIN: It's a no-go. This is not going to happen.
LANGFITT: That's because the United Kingdom doesn't seem to have a lot of leverage. Since the Brexit vote, the U.K. economy has dropped from fifth- to sixth-largest in the world. It's still dwarfed by the remaining EU 27 states. To grant Britain exceptions could undermine the whole enterprise.
FREUDENSTEIN: If we allow the Brits to cherry pick, there will be others that want to cherry pick.
LANGFITT: Like most in Brussels, Ian Lesser is pessimistic about Britain's future outside the EU. Lesser's vice president for foreign policy here at the German Marshall Fund, a transatlantic think tank.
IAN LESSER: You know, the U.K. is probably looking at lower and slower growth, less access to all sorts of things the U.K. should care about in Europe. And that will inevitably affect the United States as well because we're stakeholders in this, too.
LANGFITT: The U.S. will lose a close friend inside the European Union and see the global influence of a key ally decline.
LESSER: From a number of different perspectives, it's very hard to construct a sort of good-news story about Brexit for the United States.
LANGFITT: If tomorrow's vote goes Britain's way as expected, the U.K. will push for trade talks to begin as soon as possible next month. Frank Langfitt, NPR News, Brussels. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.