On 29 March, as promised, Theresa May wrote to Donald Tusk triggering Article 50 of the Treaty on European Union. The letter stresses the vote to leave the EU does not mean the UK is leaving Europe, nor did it attempt to harm the EU or the remaining Member States. As the European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Act received Royal Assent on 16 March, the UK has now formally notified its intention to leave both the EU and the European Atomic Energy Community. The letter sets out the approach the Government will take to discussions on Brexit and says it is in the best interests of both the UK and the EU to use the process to “deliver the objectives in a fair and orderly manner, and with as little disruption as possible on each side”. The letter describes the UK process that will take place – that is, to repeal the European Communities Act 1972 and convert the acquis into UK law so far as practical and appropriate. A White Paper to be published on 30 March will consult on how to do this. The letter confirms the UK will continue to fulfil its responsibilities as an EU member while it remains one, and that it will negotiate as one UK, although the ultimate outcome of the process is likely to create a significant increase in the decision making powers of each of the devolved administrations.
The letter stresses the UK’s desire for a “deep and special partnership” which should be agreed before withdrawal, since both sides would cope on a WTO basis, but it is not the outcome either side should seek. It then sets out the principles that might form the cornerstone for negotiations:
- engaging constructively and respectfully, in co-operation: Theresa May says she understands Donald Tusk’s position that the four freedoms of the single market are indivisible – and this is why the UK is not seeking membership of the single market;
- always putting the interests of all citizens first – so there should be early agreement on the rights of UK nationals living elsewhere in the EU and vice versa;
- working for a comprehensive agreement that sets out the terms of the future partnership alongside the terms of the UK withdrawal;
- working together to minimise disruption and giving as much certainty as possible – again, the Government hopes to agree a principle of implementation periods to adjust in a smooth and orderly way to new arrangements;
- preserving the unique relationship with the Republic of Ireland and peace in Northern Ireland – in particular maintaining the Common Travel Area and ensuring nothing about Brexit harms the Republic of Ireland;
- beginning technical talks on detailed policy areas as soon as possible, but prioritising the biggest challenges. A free trade agreement should cover crucial sectors such as financial services and network industries; and
- working together on a strong, prosperous Europe.
The letter finishes by recognising that achieving the comprehensive agreement that is needed within two years will be a challenge, but says it should not be beyond us. The CBI has commented that there is a need for a commitment to interim arrangements if a deal is not possible within the two years. For more information, see our Brexit timeline.