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Prime Minister Theresa May will file divorce papers to leave the European Union (EU) on March 29, launching two years of complex negotiations that will pit the UK’s desire for a trade deal against the bloc’s view that Britain must not benefit from Brexit.
More than 40 years after the UK joined the EU and nine months since it voted to leave, Britain’s envoy to the bloc, Tim Barrow, informed EU President Donald Tusk on Monday of May’s plan to invoke Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, the mechanism for quitting that has never been used.
At stake in the looming talks is whether Britain — the world’s sixth biggest economy — can regain powers over immigration and lawmaking without derailing trade with its largest market or threatening London’s status as the region’s leading financial centre. England’s 310-year-old union with Scotland is also in jeopardy, while the border separating Northern Ireland — a UK province — from the Republic of Ireland could become a hard one.
“I want to ensure we get the best possible deal for the United Kingdom,” May said during a visit to Swansea, Wales. The premier said her goals included getting “a good free-trade deal” with the EU and an agreement to collaborate on security after Brexit. “We are going to be out there, negotiating hard, delivering on what the British people voted for,” she said.
The EU is “ready to begin negotiations,” European Commission spokesman Margaritis Schinas told reporters in Brussels. The pound fell, reversing earlier gains, after the announcement. It was trading at $1.2348 at 4.32 pm in London, down 0.4 per cent on the day. It earlier touched $1.2436, the strongest level this month.
For the EU, the focus will be on ensuring there is no easy ride for the British as it tries to safeguard the stability and the commitment of its 27 remaining member states to the postwar project of deepening economic and political union. It is also tested by growing nationalism at home and meddling from beyond by Russian President Vladimir Putin and US President Donald Trump.
May will soon be working against the clock. Realistically, she has until the end of 2018 to agree with the terms of the break-up and try to win the trade deal she wants. If she can’t secure an agreement, Britain will crash out of the EU and over what businesses call a “cliff edge” of uncertainty and higher trade tariffs.
No details of the communication with Tusk’s office were disclosed. EU leaders plan an initial response within two days of May triggering Article 50, before convening a summit in late April or early May to ratify guidelines for their chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier. Officials have said they may wait until June to engage fully, and then German elections in September could serve as another distraction.
There is speculation that May could also try to trigger an election in the UK, in the hope of winning a bigger majority in Parliament and her own mandate to strengthen her hand at home and in the Brexit talks.