Brexit: The only way now is out for the UK

Negotiators will have to finesse the timing of a decision on the scale of the UK’s leaving bill

'This is an historic moment," Theresa May told the Commons on Wednesday, "from which there can be no turning back." The prime minister's triggering of article 50 in a letter to European Council president Donald Tusk has set in train a process that most agree is now both legally and politically irreversible. In two years, with or without a full agreement on the future relationship, UK citizens will no longer be citizens of the EU they have been part of for 44 years.

In her letter May is full of praise for the EU, its values and achievements, arguing that its success remains a primary concern of the UK, and insisting that “we want to remain committed partners and allies to our friends across the continent”.

The UK’s departure is essentially motivated by sovereigntist concerns, she writes, “a vote to restore, as we see it, our national self-determination”. Yet her letter acknowledges the paradox that the UK, in establishing a new trade relationship with the EU, “will lose influence over the rules that affect the European economy”. “We . . . understand that there will be consequences for the UK of leaving the EU,” she says while the UK chancellor Philip Hammond warned that UK would not be “able to have its cake and eat it”.

Hints at “buyer’s remorse”? Sadly not, but there was a significant attempt in her placatory tone at lowering expectations in her domestic audience, a public force-fed on wildly optimistic, aspirational guff from the Eurosceptical media about endless possibilities in the talks and wonderful new opportunities out there in the world.


There was a welcome reference to the challenges of avoiding a hard border on this island, of preserving the Common Travel Area, and the pious-sounding hope that they must make “sure that the UK’s withdrawal from the EU does not harm the Republic of Ireland”. Gee, thanks . . .

And the letter was almost as concerned with the method and pace of talks as with content. “I am sure it can be agreed in the time period set out by the Treaty,” May says, but what may not be agreed, even if the divorce talks are successfully wrapped up, is the shape of the future relationship; specifically on trade. May is adamant that such talks should be run in parallel, and the first challenge of the negotiations will be to reconcile that position with the insistence of many member states that they should be taken sequentially.

The negotiators will also have to finesse the timing of a decision on the scale of the UK’s leaving bill – although at least there is here an acknowledgment that the UK may have what she calls “international obligations” of an unspecified scale. The issue is still deeply neuralgic, however, and could collapse talks early.

But May has at last called the off, and the process of disengagement is now under way; all, as columnist Martin Wolf puts it, "an appalling way to celebrate the EU's 60th anniversary".