LONDON –– Prime Minister Theresa May formally began Britain’s divorce from the European Union on Wednesday, declaring there was no turning back and 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 World War Two, May notified EU Council President Donald Tusk in a hand-delivered letter that Britain would quit the club it joined in 1973.
“The United Kingdom is leaving the European Union,” May told parliament nine months after Britain shocked investors and world leaders by unexpectedly voting to quit the bloc. “This is an historic moment from which there can be no turning back.”
The prime minister, an initial opponent of Brexit who won the top job in the political turmoil that followed the referendum vote, now has two years to negotiate the terms of the divorce before it comes into effect in late March 2019.
May, 60, has one of the toughest jobs of any recent British prime minister: holding Britain together in the face of renewed Scottish independence demands, while conducting arduous talks with 27 other EU states on finance, trade, security and other complex issues.
The outcome of the negotiations will shape the future of Britain’s $2.6 trillion economy, the world’s fifth biggest, and determine whether London can keep its place as one of the top two global financial centers.
For the EU, already reeling from successive crises over debt and refugees, the loss of Britain is the biggest blow yet to 60 years of efforts to forge European unity in the wake of two world wars.
Its leaders say they do not want to punish Britain. But with nationalist, anti-EU parties on the rise across Europe, they cannot afford to give London generous terms that might encourage other member states to break away.
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 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 Britain’s two-year exit process. Sterling, which has lost 25 cents against the dollar since the June 23 referendum, jumped to $1.25.
May signed the six-page Brexit letter on Tuesday night, pictured alone at the cabinet table beneath a clock, a British flag and an oil painting of Britain’s first prime minister, Robert Walpole.
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.
May wants to negotiate Britain’s divorce and the future trading relationship with the EU within the two-year period, though EU officials say that will be hard.
“We believe it is necessary to agree the terms of our future partnership alongside those of our withdrawal from the EU,” May told Tusk in her letter, adding that London wanted an ambitious free trade agreement with the EU.
“If, however, we leave the European Union without an agreement the default position is that we would have to trade on World Trade Organisation terms,” she said.
May’s most powerful European interlocutor, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, promised to take a “fair and constructive” approach to Brexit talks, but said Britain could negotiate its new relationship only after it untangles existing EU commitments.
“We must deal with many rights and obligations that have been linked to membership. Only then, later, can we talk about our future relationship.”