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Britain Finally Pulls the Brexit Trigger

Let the divorce proceedings begin.

By , a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy.
tusk crop
tusk crop

The end of the Brexit beginning is here. On Wednesday, British Prime Minister Theresa May officially sent the European Union her country’s divorce papers, thus beginning the formal process of unmooring the United Kingdom from the European Union.

Britain’s surprise decision to leave the EU during a referendum in June, 2016 rattled the EU to its core. After nearly seven decades of forging the continent’s institutional unity, it finally showed signs of cracking.

It has also presented both Brussels and London with a sharp legal and political headache. The EU has over 40,000 EU regulations, 15,000 EU court verdicts, and 60,000 international standards that Britain will somehow have to entangle itself from, on issues ranging from immigration to healthcare to commerce to foreign policy to trade -- one of the most important issues given Britain’s reliance on the Eurozone market.

The end of the Brexit beginning is here. On Wednesday, British Prime Minister Theresa May officially sent the European Union her country’s divorce papers, thus beginning the formal process of unmooring the United Kingdom from the European Union.

Britain’s surprise decision to leave the EU during a referendum in June, 2016 rattled the EU to its core. After nearly seven decades of forging the continent’s institutional unity, it finally showed signs of cracking.

It has also presented both Brussels and London with a sharp legal and political headache. The EU has over 40,000 EU regulations, 15,000 EU court verdicts, and 60,000 international standards that Britain will somehow have to entangle itself from, on issues ranging from immigration to healthcare to commerce to foreign policy to trade — one of the most important issues given Britain’s reliance on the Eurozone market.

And they’ll be negotiating against the clock: Brussels and London have two years from Wednesday’s formal notification to sort out their divorce based on the so-called exit clause of the EU’s Treaty of Lisbon. If they don’t reach a final agreement on Britain’s withdrawal terms, all EU rules will suddenly no longer apply to Britain. This could pit the country in political and financial uncertainty.

Some British lawmakers fear they won’t be able to meet the deadline. The EU can extend negotiations, but only if all 27 members agree, which isn’t guaranteed. (But don’t worry, chief Brexiteer Nigel Farage said he’d just leave Britain if the Brexit he orchestrated is a disaster, so at least he’ll be okay.)

The UK’s ambassador to the EU, Tim Barrow, had the distinctly awkward honors of handing May’s official Brexit letter to European Council President Donald Tusk in Brussels Wednesday:

May struck a “let’s still be friends” tone in the letter. “We are leaving the European Union, but we are not leaving Europe — and we want to remain committed partners and allies to our friends across the continent,” she wrote.

She followed the letter with a speech before parliament, taking on a resolved tone to compensate for the sea of uncertainty she’s mired in. “Today the government acts on the democratic will of the British people,” May said in a speech to Parliament after Barrow handed in her letter. “This is an historic moment from which there can be no turning back. Britain is leaving the European Union,” she said.

But while the United Kingdom breaks from the EU, it’s grappling to keep its own kingdom united. On Tuesday, Scotland demanded a new referendum on independence from London once the terms of Brexit became clearer. The British government rejected Scotland’s bid.

In Brussels, the initial shock of the June, 2016 Brexit referendum wore off well before Wednesday. As one Politico Europe story puts it: “the mood in the European capital has largely shifted to ‘don’t let the door hit you on the way out.’”

But Tusk was clearly still hurt. “There is no reason to pretend that this is a happy day, neither in Brussels, nor in London. After all, most Europeans, including almost half the British voters wish that we would stay together, not drift apart. As for me I will not pretend that I am happy today,” he said.

“What can I add? We already miss you,” he said.

Photo credit: YVES HERMAN/AFP/Getty Images

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

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