Theresa May will trigger Article 50 on 29 March, her office announced today (20 March), starting two-years of unprecedented negotiations for a country to leave the 28-member bloc for the first time.
Downing Street’s announcement of the date – as promised, by the end of March – came after an earlier expected announcement was torpedoed by the declaration of Scotland’s First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, to hold a second referendum on independence.
A scheduled 6 April EU summit to discuss Brexit will now take place “within four to six weeks”, a source told AFP. Britain’s planned notification on 29 March “does not leave sufficient time” for a meeting that had initially been scheduled for 6 April, the source said.
Officially, Brussels reacted at its daily midday press conference, with Commission spokesman Margaritis Schinas telling reporters: “Everything is ready on this side” and “we are ready to begin negotiations”.
The long-expected news came as May was in Cardiff, the Welsh capital, as part of a short tour of the UK’s devolved parliaments and assemblies, ahead of the 29 March date.
Within 48 hours of the UK triggering Article 50, I will present the draft #Brexit guidelines to the EU27 Member States.
— Donald Tusk (@eucopresident) March 20, 2017
In Brussels itself, the news was delivered by the UK’s new ambassador, Tim Barrow, who informed Council President Donald Tusk this morning.
In London, May’s spokesman said: “We want the negotiations to start promptly.”
Chief Brexit minister, David Davis, whose official title is Secretary of State for Exiting the EU – more dramatically said: “We are on the threshold of the most important negotiation for this country for a generation.”
The UK voted 52% to 48% to leave the EU in a referendum last June – although with no options or guidance on what form that so-called Brexit would take.
May has since hardened the government’s stance – after taking over as prime minister from David Cameron – into a ‘hard Brexit’ which will see the UK (including Scotland, which voted to remain) leave the single market and end free movement of people.
The Article 50 notification, under the Lisbon Treaty, gives two years for divorce talks – although that must also include ratification by the European Parliament, and is subject to a vote of national parliaments.
Michel Barnier, a French diplomat, will lead negotiations for the Commission, with Belgian MEP Guy Verhofstadt representing the Parliament.
At stake are also the several million EU citizens currently in the UK and UK nationals living or working in the EU, plus the future of the Northern Irish border with the Republic of Ireland.
Separately, last Monday (13 March) Sturgeon announced that such a hard Brexit would constitute the ‘material change’ enabling the Scottish Parliament to hold a second independence referendum.
Her preferred date was before the end of Brexit negotiations, from autumn 2018 to spring 2019, but that has been rejected by May.
The UK only joined the EU in January 1973, and then re-affirmed membership in a 1975 referendum, before voting to leave last year.
Before a future trade deal between the UK and EU is negotiated, Brussels is demanding a ‘divorce’ bill of around €60bn, for Britain’s ongoing liabilities to the bloc.
Also at stake are various EU bodies located in the UK, and separately, the Euratom treaty on civil nuclear power.
The British government initially denied its parliament any say on triggering Article 50, before the Supreme Court insisted MPs have a say. Despite various objections from the House of Lords, that legislation was passed earlier this month.
If both the EU and UK agree, the two-year deadline set by Article 50 could be extended. On the other hand, if talks are not completed or break down, the UK would leave the EU and revert to World Trade Organisation tariffs.