UK Prime Minister Theresa May today formally triggered article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty beginning the process of Britain’s exit from the European Union. With Brexit now in motion, nine months after the referendum result that shocked the world, the EU and the UK have exactly two years in which to negotiate a breakup. In a letter delivered to European Commission President Donald Tusk, May outlined her vision of the kind of relationship she would like the EU and the UK to have once it is complete.
“Since I became Prime Minister of the United Kingdom I have listened carefully to you, to my fellow EU Heads of Government and the Presidents of the European Commission and Parliament,” Ms May said in the letter.
“That is why the United Kingdom does not seek membership of the single market: we understand and respect your position that the four freedoms of the single market are indivisible and there can be no “cherry picking”.
This was perhaps the most categorical statement yet that a ‘hard Brexit’, where the UK leaves the customs union and loses the right to freedom of movement for its citizens within the EU, is the only option on the table.
One of the first points addressed by Ms May in the letter was the need to bring certainty to the status of EU citizens living in the UK and vice versa, saying that negotiators should ‘aim to strike an early agreement about their rights.’
Earlier this month an amendment added by the House of Lords to the Brexit bill that would have obliged the government to guarantee the rights of EU nationals living in the UK was voted down by the House of Commons, paving the way for the bill to be signed by the Queen and become law.
Despite Ms May’s acceptance that borders will once again be erected between the UK and Europe, she stressed the need for some form of exception to be made for Northern Ireland, where the Good Friday Agreement, which brought peace to that country after 30 years of sectarian violence, would be thrown into doubt if a hard border with the Republic of Ireland were to be reinstated.
“In particular, we must pay attention to the UK’s unique relationship with the Republic of Ireland and the importance of the peace process in Northern Ireland. The Republic of Ireland is the only EU member state with a land border with the United Kingdom. We want to avoid a return to a hard border between our two countries, to be able to maintain the Common Travel Area between us, and to make sure that the UK’s withdrawal from the EU does not harm the Republic of Ireland,” she said.
Turning to a post-Brexit trade agreement between the UK and the EU 27, Ms May called for a ‘bold and ambitious’ agreement of ‘greater scope…than any such agreement before it’. She made no mention of when she would like to see the FTA completed, but had previously said she wanted it done within the same two-year period as the exit negotiations.
EU officials and trade experts have called the two-year timeframe unrealistic, offering alternative estimates ranging from 5 to 15 years instead.