STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
We've been talking with the woman who took on the job of running the U.K. Theresa May is in New York for United Nations meetings. She became prime minister after a referendum to leave the European Union. She did not favor Brexit but says she'll make it work. Her top diplomat is now Boris Johnson, the flamboyant ex-journalist who became a leader of the Brexit campaign and whose own bid for prime minister flamed out.
PRIME MINISTER THERESA MAY: I think Boris is making an excellent job as foreign sec. He's with me here in the United Nations meeting a number of his opposite numbers, participating in some important talks.
INSKEEP: Many important talks are to come. Theresa May faces what may be a years-long task of removing Britain from the EU.
British voters wanted to end the free flow of people but are hoping, somehow, to remain part of the European Free Trade Zone. What, in your view, will improve in the daily lives of your people if you succeed in leaving the European Union?
MAY: Well, first of all, you - we will succeed in leaving the European Union. The British people voted to do that, and we will respect that vote - that democratic vote and put that into practice. I think what people were voting for was a feeling of more control in a number of areas over their own lives - more control, for example, by the British government over who could come into the United Kingdom. You know, you have those controls here in America, an ability to decide who can come over and work in America, for example. So I think people wanted to see more control for the British government.
INSKEEP: But forgive me if you - I understand that people wanted to end the free movement of people, keep out foreigners. How does that make people's lives better?
MAY: Well, first of all, I don't actually agree with quite the description of how you put that.
INSKEEP: Oh, please.
MAY: We want - people want - oh, come on - what people want is a degree of control. And that's a different thing - what people want to feel is that it's their government who's able to decide who's able to come into the United Kingdom. Now, we already have that ability for people coming to the United Kingdom from outside the countries in the European Union.
MAY: They wanted us to be able to have it for countries inside the European Union. And that was a key reason why people voted to come out of the European Union. What's going to change in the future? Well, I'm very clear that we're going to make a success of coming out of the European Union.
That does mean that we will be out there taking the opportunities now for free trade with a number of countries around the globe. I want the U.K. to be a global leader in free trade. Why is that important? It's important because it brings growth, prosperity and jobs to people, and that's about their daily lives.
INSKEEP: Are you going to be able to deliver on free trade with other countries such as the United States? President Obama has said Britain would be at the back of the queue. Even if Britain wasn't, it takes many, many years to negotiate new trade deals.
MAY: Well, there's a limit to what we can formally sign up to while we're still members of the European Union.
MAY: And obviously, one of our negotiations is going to be our trade relationship with the EU. But I'm very clear, and I've been talking to leaders. I've talked to President Obama. I've talked to other leaders around the world. And there's a real interest in ensuring that we can develop the economic and trading relationships between the U.K. and a number of other countries, including the United States.
And while I was here in New York, I took the opportunity to meet with a number of U.S. investors, companies that are in the United Kingdom. And, you know, every morning - every working day, a million people wake up in the United Kingdom and go to work for an American company. And actually, every day in the United States, a million people work up - wake up and go to work for a British company. So we've already got a strong bilateral relationship in economic terms. We've obviously got a special relationship that the U.K. and America have had for many, many years, which will continue. And I'm confident that we can build a really good trading partnership for the future.
INSKEEP: I think even more British citizens work for European companies or actually live in Europe. Are you sure you're going to be able to make life better once Brexit is complete?
MAY: There are opportunities for us once Brexit is complete. And I'm absolutely clear that we are going to take those opportunities. We're going to make a success. And people will see a difference. I'm - what I've said about my government is that it will be a government that will work with everyone. I want to see an economy that works for everyone and a society that works for everyone in the U.K. And that's about spreading the benefits of economic growth across the country and among people, and there's a number of ways in which we will do that. I think leaving the European Union, with the opportunities it gives us for the trading relationships around the rest of the world, will be an important part of that.
INSKEEP: I know that your goal is to keep access to the single European market, if you can, while also ending the free movement of people, as we have said. A number of European nations have said they're just not going to accept that rearrangement - Poland, Slovakia, Hungary. A number of leaders of other European countries have expressed skepticism. Do you really believe it's possible to deliver on that?
MAY: Well, yes. The vote was clearly a vote that people wanted us to bring control into the movement of people from the European Union into the United Kingdom. But if I may, I haven't said in specific terms exactly what trade deal we want with the European Union once we have left, and there are a number of models at the moment. Norway has a relationship with the EU which involves the free movement of people but also access to the single market.
INSKEEP: They pay for that right.
MAY: But what I want is for the United Kingdom to be able to forge its own relationship with the European Union. We're looking for that new relationship. We voted to leave the EU. We didn't vote to leave Europe. So we want to continue to have a strong relationship with Europe. And it's in our economic interests that the European Union continues to be strong. So I think, as we go ahead, we will be working to negotiate a deal that will be of benefit not just to the U.K. but actually of benefit to the rest of Europe as well.
INSKEEP: What have you thought, Prime Minister, as you have read - and I'm sure you've seen many - articles in which people have said that British voters were sold an unrealistic plan and now the government have no idea how to implement it?
MAY: No. The government has - is working very hard on our preparations for the negotiation. I've set up a new government department, our Department for Exiting the European Union, that is focusing on the work for those negotiations. The technicality is that we have to write a letter to trigger something called Article 50 to start the process. We haven't done that yet because we're just taking a few months to do that preparation.
But I think if you look back at the vote, the issue of membership of the European Union had been an issue for the British people with much comment on it for many years now. People had the opportunity to have their say. They had their say. They said they wanted us to leave, and that's what we will be doing.
INSKEEP: Theresa May is prime minister of Britain.
Thank you very much.
MAY: Thank you.
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