Britain’s departure from the European Union is “an historic moment from which there can be no turning back”, Theresa May has told MPs.
The prime minister said it was a “unique opportunity” to “shape a brighter future” for the UK.
She was speaking after Britain’s EU ambassador formally triggered the two year countdown to the UK’s exit by handing over a letter in Brussels.
It follows June’s referendum which resulted in a vote to leave the EU.
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In a statement in the Commons, the prime minister said: “Today the government acts on the democratic will of the British people and it acts too on the clear and convincing position of this House.”
She added: “The Article 50 process is now under way and in accordance with the wishes of the British people the United Kingdom is leaving the European Union.
“This is an historic moment from which there can be no turning back.”
She said Britain would now make its own decisions and its own laws and “take control of the things that matter most to us – we are going to take this opportunity to build a stronger, fairer Britain, a country that our children and grandchildren are proud to call home”.
She told MPs that this marks “the moment for the country to come together”.
Mrs May said it was a “moment of celebration for some, disappointment for others” and promised to “represent every person in the whole United Kingdom” during the negotiations – including EU nationals, whose status after Brexit has yet to be settled.
She said that while the UK would remain the “best friend and neighbour” to its EU partners, it would also look beyond the borders of Europe.
“We can choose to say the task ahead is too great, we can choose to turn our face to the past and believe it can’t be done, or we can look forward with optimism and hope and to believe in the enduring power of the British spirit,” she said.
“I choose to believe in Britain and that our best days lie ahead.”
Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty gives both sides two years to reach agreement, so unless both sides – including all 27 remaining EU member states – agree to extend the deadline for talks, the UK will leave on 29 March 2019.
The six page letter from Mrs May triggering Article 50 was handed over to EU Council President Donald Tusk by the UK’s ambassador to the EU Sir Tim Barrow.
Focus on May’s letter to Tusk
Laura Kuenssberg’s analysis: There is no repetition of the prime minister’s bold threat to walk away if a deal couldn’t be done, where she said starkly, “no deal is better than a bad deal”.
That threat went down very badly with EU diplomats, even though as a negotiating position it perhaps had to be said.
But it’s notable that it was nowhere to be found in today’s letter or today’s statement, and that the PM made plain in fact how much she wants to work to avoid that happening.
The letter calls for a “deep and special” partnership in the best interests of both the UK and the EU – but said the UK wanted to agree a trade deal alongside a withdrawal deal within the two year time table allowed by Article 50. EU chiefs have said the two issues should be handled separately.
A few minutes later a sombre-looking Donald Tusk held up Mrs May’s letter, saying: “We already miss you. Thank you and goodbye.”
In a brief statement, he said it was not “a happy day” for him or for the EU and promised to begin arrangements for the UK’s “orderly withdrawal”.
He said the EU’s aim in negotiations was “damage limitation” and to “minimise costs” for EU citizens, businesses and member states.
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said his party would “back” Mrs May if she meets his party’s tests on the Brexit deal – including full access to the single market and protection for workers’ rights.
“More than ever, Britain needs a government that can deliver for the whole country, not just the few, and that is the ultimate test of the Brexit deal that the prime minister must now secure,” he told MPs.
Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron, who opposes Brexit, said Mrs May was “twisting the will of the people, leaping into the abyss without any idea of where our country will end up”.
He said it was “still possible for the British people to stop a hard Brexit and keep us in the single market – and if they want, it is still possible for the British people to choose to remain in the European Union”.
“It is a tragedy that Labour are helping the Conservatives in doing this damage to our country,” he added.
The SNP accused Theresa May of breaking a promise to secure a UK-wide agreement before triggering Article 50 – and took a swipe at the prime minister’s claim that “now is not the time” for another Scottish independence referendum.
The party’s foreign affairs spokesman Alex Salmond said: “After nine months of this prime minister’s approach to Brexit Northern Ireland is deadlocked, the Welsh are alienated, Scotland is going for a referendum, the English are split down the middle, and Brexit MPs are walking out of Commons committees because they don’t like home truths.
“Has the prime minister considered, in terms of invoking Article 50, that ‘now is not the time’?”
Chancellor Philip Hammond, who like Mrs May and Mr Corbyn campaigned against Brexit in the referendum, earlier suggested the UK would have to compromise with other EU countries and could not expect to secure all its demands.
“We cannot have our cake and eat it,” he said.
He did not rule out partial or associate membership of the EU single market, while stressing that the UK could not remain “full members” of it.
He also stressed that there will be no cut-off from today to the rights of EU nationals arriving in Britain.
In a draft resolution, the European Parliament said any trade deal between the UK and the EU can only be struck after Britain has left.
The document says any transitional agreement to tide over the period before a trade deal is put in place should last no more than three years after the expected date of Brexit in 2019.
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The resolution, expected to be debated and adopted by the European Parliament in Strasbourg on 5 April, sets out the tough line which leading MEPs want the EU’s chief negotiator Michel Barnier to take in negotiations triggered by the invocation of Article 50.
Theresa May will be outlining the next steps for the UK during a special half hour BBC One interview on Wednesday with Andrew Neil at 19:00 BST on “Britain after Brexit”, to mark the triggering of Article 50.
Up for discussion
- Trade: The UK will withdraw from the single market and seek a new customs arrangement and a free trade agreement with the EU
- Expats: The government wants to secure an agreement with European countries “at the earliest opportunity” on the rights of EU nationals in the UK and Britons living in Europe
- Brexit bill: The UK government has promised to honour its obligations as it leaves, but has brushed off claims these could run to £50bn
- Northern Ireland border: Aiming for “as seamless and frictionless a border as possible between Northern Ireland and Ireland”
- Sovereignty: Britain will leave the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice but seek to set up separate resolution mechanisms for things like trade disputes
- Security: The UK government has said it wants to continue to cooperate on security and intelligence-sharing
- Transitional deal: An interim arrangement may be needed before the final arrangements come into force
Negotiations with other EU nations are expected to begin in mid-May.
Other issues which are likely to be discussed are cross-border security arrangements, the European Arrest Warrant, moving EU agencies which have their headquarters in the UK and the UK’s contribution to pensions of EU civil servants – part of a wider “divorce bill” which some reports have suggested could run to £50bn.
On Thursday the government is expected to publish details of its “Great Repeal Bill”, which aims to convert EU law into domestic legislation and repeal the European Communities Act, which says EU law is supreme to the UK’s.
‘No turning back’ on Brexit as Article 50 triggered}