Britain formally launched the process to leave the European Union on Wednesday, handing a letter to EU president Donald Tusk and setting in motion a chain of events that will formally take the UK out of the European Union after 44 years.
Sir Tim Barrow, Britain’s ambassador to the European Union, delivered the letter from prime minister Theresa May to Mr Tusk’s office in Brussels at 12.30pm. The letter was signed the evening before by Mrs May, the event recorded for posterity in a photograph released by her office.
“After nine months the UK has delivered. #Brexit,” Mr Tusk tweeted after he received the letter, referring to Britain’s shock June 23, 2016 referendum vote to leave the EU. During a speech later, he said, there was “no reason to pretend this is a happy day,” but stressed that the priority now was to minimise costs for EU citizens and member states. Mr Tusk will present the EU’s formal response to Mrs May’s letter by Friday, if not sooner.
Days after the EU’s 60th birthday, Britain becomes the first country to seek to leave, striking a blow at the heart of the union forged from the ashes of the Second World War. Brexit also demolishes the notion that EU expansion is inevitable and shakes the foundations of a bloc that is facing challenges to its identity and its place in the world.
In a statement to the House of Commons on Wednesday afternoon, Mrs May said, “This is a historic moment from which there can be no turning back. Today the government acts on the democratic will of the British people.” But the triggering of Article 50 was also “the moment for the country to come together,” she added.
It was a particularly telling remark, given that only the previous day the Scottish parliament had voted in favour of holding a second referendum to seek independence from the UK.
Scotland voted against Brexit in the countrywide referendum last June, and Nicola Sturgeon, the Scottish first minister, who met Mrs May in Edinburgh on Monday, has frequently said that Brexit will ruin Scotland’s economy.
With Tuesday’s vote in the Scottish parliament behind her, Ms Sturgeon will now ask the British government for permission to conduct the referendum. She said she expected that permission to be granted.
“Today’s vote must now be respected,” she said “This is, first and foremost, about giving the people of Scotland a choice on this country’s future.”
Even without the potential complications of Scotland breaking away, the process initiated by Article 50 is a complex one.
The British government will now appoint negotiators to begin discussions with the EU over the terms of Brexit: the details of customs and tariffs, for example, or the status of citizens of one territory living in the other.
Article 50 provides two years for such negotiations, said Dr Tim Oliver, a political scientist at the London School of Economics, and that time can only be extended with the agreement of all 27 of the EU’s remaining member states.
“There is talk of some form of transition period beyond the two years, but this needs to be agreed and will likely have a time limit on it,” Dr Oliver said. “If no agreement is reached within the two years, then the UK leaves without an agreement.”
During those two years the UK continues to be a full member of the EU.
The coming negotiations are already being described as the most complex for Britain since the end of the Second World War — something reflected in Mrs May’s letter which is six-pages long and addresses the aims of the discussions to come. No member state has left the EU, so every square inch of the negotiations will be uncharted terrain.
First, the 27 member states of the EU will meet to finalise their expectations of the Brexit process, which will then be conveyed to Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief negotiator and a former French foreign minister.
On the British side, the negotiations will be conducted by David Davis, the recently appointed secretary of state for exiting the EU.
Mrs May has said that the UK wants a free-trade deal with Europe that would offer the “greatest possible access” to its market. But she also wants the UK to be in sole control of its borders and to remove her country from the purview of the European Court of Justice.
The UK’s expectations have not gone down well with European politicians, who have accused Mrs May of wanting all the benefits of EU membership without shouldering any of its responsibilities.
“Cherry-picking is not an option,” Mr Barnier warned last December.
In January, Tomas Prouza, the Czech Republic’s state secretary for European affairs tweeted a similar sentiment. “The UK’s plan seems a bit ambitious — trade as free as possible, full control on immigration — where is the give for all the take?”
Time may also be in short supply. Although Article 50 accords two years to the process, in reality there may only be 18 months at hand, given that the EU will take several weeks at the beginning to set down its guidelines and then several weeks more at the end to ratify any deal that is struck.
When a deal is achieved, Mrs May has to bring it back to the British parliament for it to be approved.
The vote in parliament “will be a take-it-or-leave-it vote, meaning either the House of Commons votes for the deal negotiated, or if it rejects the deal the UK leaves without a deal”, Dr Oliver said.
“Some in the House of Commons are angry at this, stating it gives them no options. But the government has resisted attempts by parliament to control the negotiations in any way.”
That parliamentary vote is significant, because it spells out not only the UK’s future relationship with the EU but the future of Mrs May and of British politics.
Anand Menon, a professor of European politics at King’s College in London, thought that parliament’s rejection of the deal would upend the British government. “I rather feel that if the deal is voted down in parliament, the PM will have little choice but to resign,” he said.
But for Britons who voted 52 to 48 per cent to leave the bloc in last June’s referendum, Wednesday was a time for celebration.
“In my opinion, this is the greatest moment in modern British history,” said Brendan Chilton, general secretary of the pro-Brexit group Labour Leave. “We are finally beginning the process by which we leave the European Union, restore our Parliament and once again become a sovereign nation.”
For “remain” campaigners, it was time to fight for a divorce settlement that preserves what they see as key benefits of EU membership, including free trade in goods and services and the right to live and work anywhere in the bloc.
“The phoney war is over,” said Joe Carberry, co-director of the pro-EU pressure group Open Britain. “The issue of how we will leave, and the democratic checks and balances along the process of the negotiations, remains unresolved.”