Brexit officially begins as Theresa May triggers Article 50
British leader says there is ‘no turning back’ but Angela Merkel resists parallel talks bid
British prime minister Theresa May formally began the UK’s divorce from the EU on Wednesday, ushering in a tortuous exit process that will test the bloc’s cohesion and pitch her country into the unknown.
In one of the most significant steps by a British leader since the second World War, Ms May notified European Council president Donald Tusk in a hand-delivered letter that the UK would quit the club it joined in 1973.
“The UK is leaving the EU,” Ms May told the House of Commons on Wednesday, nine months after Britain shocked investors and world leaders by voting to quit the bloc in a referendum last June.
“This is an historic moment from which there can be no turning back.”
The British prime minister, who initially opposed Brexit and won the job in the political turmoil that followed the referendum vote, now has two years to negotiate the terms of Brexit before it comes into effect in late March 2019.
However, Ms May is facing resistance from German chancellor Angela Merkel and the European Parliament to her goal of conducting negotiations on the UK’s future trade relations with Europe at the same time as talks on arrangements for Brexit.
Ms Merkel said talks must first clarify how to unravel the commitments, rights and duties which the UK had entered into over its 44-year membership.
“It is only if we have sorted that out that we can next - and I hope soon - talk about our future relationship,” said the German chancellor.
Ms Merkel added Germany would strive in negotiations to make sure there was as little disruption as possible to the lives of EU citizens living in the UK.
Stressing that she hoped the UK and the EU would remain close partners, she said the prospect of Brexit made many people in Europe worried about their own personal future.
“This is the case, especially for the many Germans and European citizens in Britain.
“Therefore, the German government will work intensively to make sure the effect on the everyday lives of those people is as small as possible,” said Ms Merkel.
Ms May’s notice of the UK’s intention to leave the bloc under article 50 of the EU’s Lisbon Treaty was hand-delivered to Mr Tusk in Brussels by Tim Barrow, Britain’s permanent representative to the EU, on the top floor of the new Europa Building in Brussels.
That moment formally set the clock ticking on the UK’s two-year exit process.
Ms May signed the six-page Brexit letter on Tuesday night. A photograph of the moment showed Ms May alone at the cabinet table beneath a clock, a British flag and an oil-painting of Britain’s first prime minister, Robert Walpole.
Theresa May's Brexit letter
Her letter sought to set a positive tone for the talks, though it admitted that the task of extracting the UK from the EU was momentous and that reaching comprehensive agreements within two years would be a challenge.
Ms May wrote that she wanted to negotiate the UK’s divorce and its future trading relationship with the EU within the two-year period.
“We believe it is necessary to agree the terms of our future partnership alongside those of our withdrawal from the EU,” Ms May told Mr Tusk in her letter, adding that London wanted an ambitious free-trade agreement with the EU.
“If, however, we leave the EU without an agreement, the default position is that we would have to trade on World Trade Organisation terms,” she said.
In the letter, Ms May promised to seek the greatest possible access to European markets, but said the UK was not seeking membership of the single market, which comprises 500 million people, as she understood there could be no “cherry-picking” in terms of the unfettered movement of goods, people and capital it allows.
The UK will aim to establish its own free trade deals with countries beyond Europe, and impose limits on immigration from the continent, Ms May said.
In an attempt to start Brexit talks on a conciliatory note, Ms May said she wanted a special partnership with the EU.
She assured EU leaders of a constructive approach to Brexit and pledged that the UK would remain a close partner for the EU and would encourage its development.
She also recognised that the UK cannot retain the best bits of membership after leaving.
However, she also implied that the UK could live with a breakdown of talks on trade, along with what may have been a threat to disrupt the security and counterterrorism co-operation for which the UK, as a member of the US-backed Five Eyes system, is highly valued.
“We should work together to minimise disruption and give as much certainty as possible,” Ms May said.
“Weakening our co-operation for the prosperity and protection of our citizens would be a costly mistake.”
Mr Tusk said the EU would seek to minimise the cost of Brexit to EU citizens and businesses and that Brussels wanted an orderly withdrawal for the UK.
“We already miss you,” said Mr Tusk, who will send the 27 other EU states draft negotiating guidelines within 48 hours. “Thank you and goodbye.”
In a draft resolution to be voted on next week, politicians in the European Parliament offered a faint glimmer of hope to the 48 per cent of UK voters who opposed Brexit, saying it was not too late for the UK to reverse the Brexit process.
The course of the Brexit talks - and even their scope - remains uncertain.
“The timeframe is damn narrow,” said Martin Schaefer, a spokesman for the German foreign ministry.
In recent months, German officials have made clear that they do not believe there is time to negotiate a bespoke transitional agreement for the UK that would come into force immediately after Brexit.
A huge number of questions remain, including immigration and the future rights of EU citizens in the UK and Britons living in Europe.
One major uncertainty for Ms May is who will be leading France and Germany during the Brexit talks, as both countries face elections this year.
“It’s bad news for everybody. It’s a wedge pushed into the European project,” said French centrist presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron, who has made clear he would ensure the UK gains no undue advantages outside the EU.
At home, a divided UK faces strains that could lead to its break-up.
Scottish nationalists have demanded an independence referendum that Ms May has refused.
In Northern Ireland, rival parties are embroiled in a major political crisis, with Sinn Féin nationalists demanding a vote on leaving the UK and uniting with the Republic of Ireland.
Ms May said she knew that triggering Brexit would be a day of celebration for some and disappointment for others.
“Now that the decision to leave has been made and the process is under way, it is time to come together,“ she said.