UK launches first exit in EU history
By Eszter Zalan
This is the firing of the starting pistol that negotiators and observers have been waiting for.
The UK officially invokes Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty on Wednesday (29 March) to withdraw its membership of the European Union.
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British prime minister Theresa May signed the letter on Tuesday evening, and talked on the phone with European Council president Donald Tusk, European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker and German chancellor Angela Merkel.
"In separate calls, they agreed that a strong EU was in everyone’s interests and that the UK would remain a close and committed ally," May's office said in a statement.
"They also agreed on the importance of entering into negotiations in a constructive and positive spirit, and of ensuring a smooth and orderly exit process."
It is a historic moment, as the UK is the first EU member to leave the 28-strong club, after 52 percent of the voters who turned up to the referendum last June chose to do so.
Sir Tim Barrow, the UK’s permanent representative to the EU, will hand the letter triggering formal negotiations to Tusk at around 1.30pm on Wednesday. Tusk will then give a press statement in Brussels shortly before 2pm.
May will address the UK parliament at the same time, calling for unity.
At that moment, with the handing over of the letter, the clock will start ticking. The UK will be automatically out of the EU in two years, unless all of the other 27 member states unanimously agree to continue talks.
48 hours after May's letter is received, depending on the actual content of the letter and the intentions of the UK, Tusk will start circulating a document among the member states - the "negotiating guidelines."
EU leaders are set to agree on the basic political principles of the negotiations in a special summit on 29 April.
Within a day of the summit, the European Commission had promised to come forward with the so-called "negotiating directives" - a set of more detailed rules for the talks - which will also give a mandate to the EU's chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, to start talks on behalf of the 27.
The directives will then be adopted by the EU affairs ministers in the Council of the EU.
The actual negotiations could start at the end of May. Legally, the UK will still be an EU member state for the next two years with all of the accompanying rights and responsibilities.
Parlez-vous anglais ?
The talks will take place in Brussels, but the language they will be held in is still unclear.
Barnier is French, but the UK negotiators will speak English. Once the negotiations start, Barnier and UK Brexit minister David Davis need to agree on the principles, and working groups will hammer out the legal texts.
Barnier has said talks should be wrapped up in 18 months to give enough time for the divorce settlement to be adopted by the member states and the European Parliament.
He has also outlined that the terms of "orderly withdrawal" need to be settled first before negotiations on the future relations, and especially a trade agreement, can begin. Any discussion on a transitional agreement could only start when the two sides have an idea about the type of future relationship they are aiming for.
It means there would only be a few months to agree on the most contentious topics, such as the legal status of EU citizens living in the UK, and UK citizens living in the EU; the status of the border between Northern Ireland and Ireland; and settling the bill from the UK's previous financial commitments.
If the two sides do not come to an agreement on the terms of the divorce within the two-year time limit, the UK would have to leave without a deal, unless the 27 agree to continue talks.
Barnier has warned that a "no deal" scenario would hurt the UK badly, saying it could slow down trade, disrupt air traffic, and suspend the movement of nuclear materials.
And while the UK had nine months to prepare, we know little of the sort of relationship the country is aiming for, except that prime minister Theresa May has opted for a "hard Brexit" - leaving the EU's single market, the EU's customs union and the European Court of Justice's jurisdiction - to please her Conservative party's hardliners.
Manfred Weber, the leader of the largest political group in European Parliament, the centre-right European People's Party group, did not mince words on Tuesday (28 March).
He told journalists that it was a "historic mistake" for the UK to leave the EU but that he respected the decision of the British voters. He said that it was not the length of UK's letter, but its substance that counts.
"For nine months we only had messages from London on what they don’t want, want they don’t like, hopefully tomorrow [Wednesday] we will have a better idea [of] what they like and want," he said.
The European Parliament will vote on a resolution next week to set out its red lines on Brexit. Weber has said his group supports Barnier's strategy of first agreeing on citizens, the financial liabilities, and the Irish border.
Weber warned that leaving the EU "will be costly", but that the UK will have to respect its previous commitments made to the EU budget whose size and shape it has heavily influenced.
He insisted that the promise of the Brexit campaigners that it would be positive for the UK budget was "not correct".
He also said he did not think it was possible to finish the negotiations within 18 months.
On Wednesday, the countdown begins.
"We are ready, Michel Barnier is ready, his team is ready," a European Commission spokesman said.