British Prime Minister Theresa May yesterday (27 March) urged Scotland not to choose independence, while also fighting a political crisis in Northern Ireland in the frantic final days before she launches Brexit.
With Britain still reeling from a terror attack at the gates of parliament, May is preparing to embark on a journey out of the European Union this week that will change Britain and the EU forever.
“Now is not the time” for a referendum, May said before meeting First Minister Nicola Sturgeon at a Glasgow hotel – their first talks since the Scottish leader announced plans for a vote.
Both leaders said they were not ready to compromise.
The Edinburgh parliament today is expected to back Sturgeon’s call for a new independence vote – three years after one in which Scots voted to stay – to be held before Britain leaves the EU in 2019.
May will send a letter to EU Council President Donald Tusk with Britain’s formal departure notification on Wednesday, opening up a two-year negotiating window before Britain actually leaves the bloc in 2019.
The Sunday Times reported that the letter would run to eight pages and British media said it would be handed over in person by Britain’s EU envoy Tim Barrow at the same time as May addresses British MPs.
The notification will come nine months after Britain voted by 52% in favour of leaving the EU, the first country to do so, in a decision that shocked the world and caused a sharp devaluation of the pound.
The EU is expected to provide an initial response by Friday and an EU summit on 29 April will come up with a more detailed strategy, but the talks themselves are not expected to start until May at the earliest.
‘We want a deal’
The prospect of those negotiations breaking down and Britain leaving with no deal in place is a growing concern for UK business leaders and among pro-EU politicians on both sides of the Channel.
The EU’s chief negotiator Michel Barnier last week warned that if no deal was reached, it could mean queues at the port of Dover, disrupted air traffic in and out of Britain and even see the transport of nuclear material suspended.
“We want a deal,” Barnier told reporters, after May said that “no deal is better than a bad deal”.
Barnier also said Britain must “settle the accounts” after EU officials said London faced an exit bill of around €60 billion – likely to be a major bone of contention in the negotiations.
The launch of Brexit, which has raised wider questions about European integration, will come just days after EU leaders celebrated the 60th anniversary of the bloc’s founding treaty in Rome with a declaration in favour a “multi-speed Europe”.
Tens of thousands of pro-EU demonstrators took to the streets of London and other European cities on Saturday but for many Britons the country’s departure cannot come soon enough.
‘Out of control’ Brexiteers
The run-up to the historic moment has been particularly frenzied for May, who had to be rushed out of the British parliament last Wednesday after an attacker went on a rampage outside the gates.
Briton Khalid Masood, 52, ran over and killed three pedestrians, then stabbed a police officer to death before being shot dead himself just inside the gates of the symbol of Britain’s democracy.
Scotland and Northern Ireland are providing two further headaches for Conservative leader May.
In Northern Ireland, Britain on Monday extended talks aimed at ending a deadlock on forming a power-sharing executive after a deadline to do so expired.
“We now have a short window of opportunity,” Northern Ireland Minister James Brokenshire told reporters, saying failure to reach a deal so far was “extremely disappointing” and would cause “widespread dismay”.
Northern Ireland voted for the UK to stay in the European Union and the border with the the Republic of Ireland, an EU member state, is a concern for negotiators.
As well as exposing deep rifts between different parts of the country, the Brexit vote showed up the divide between the haves and the have-nots of globalisation and the raw wounds from the global financial crisis and years of austerity.