The United Kingdom filed for divorce from the European Union on Wednesday, overturning four decades of integration with its neighbors, demolishing the notion that EU expansion is inevitable and shaking the foundations of a bloc that is facing challenges to its identity and its place in the world.
Britain’s top envoy to the EU, Tim Barrow, hand-delivered a letter to European Council President Donald Tusk formally triggering a two-year countdown to the final split.
“This is an historic moment from which there can be no turning back,” Prime Minister Theresa May told lawmakers in the House of Commons. “Today the government acts on the democratic will of the British people.”
Tusk tweeted that “after nine months the UK has delivered,” followed by a photo of Barrow handing him the letter in front of British and EU flags in Brussels.
For Britons who voted to leave the bloc in a referendum nine months ago, it was a time for celebration.
“In my opinion, this is the greatest moment in modern British history,” said Brendan Chilton, general secretary of the pro-Brexit group Labour Leave. “We are finally beginning the process by which we leave the European Union, restore our Parliament and once again become a sovereign nation.”
For “remain” campaigners, it was time to fight for a divorce settlement that preserves what they see as key benefits of EU membership, including free trade in goods and services and the right to live and work anywhere in the bloc.
“The phony war is over,” said Joe Carberry, co-director of the pro-EU pressure group Open Britain. He said Britain had decided that it would leave the bloc – but “the issue of how we will leave, and the democratic checks and balances along the process of the negotiations, remains unresolved.” For Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the EU’s executive Commission, Britain’s departure is “a failure and a tragedy.”
The loss of a major member is destabilizing for the EU, which is battling to contain a tide of nationalist and populist sentiment and faces unprecedented antipathy from the new resident of the White House.
It is even more tumultuous for Britain. For all the U.K. government’s confident talk of forging a close and friendly new relationship with its neighbors, it cannot be sure what it’s future relationship with the bloc will look like – whether businesses will freely be able to trade, students to study abroad or pensioners to retire with ease in other EU states.Those things have become part of life since the U.K. joined what was then called the European Economic Community in 1973.
It’s not even certain that the United Kingdom will survive the exit intact. Scotland’s parliament voted Tuesday to back First Minister Nicola Sturgeon’s call for a referendum on independence within two years. Scottish voters backed remaining in the EU in last year’s vote, and Sturgeon insists Scotland must not be “taken down a path that we do not want to go down without a choice.”
May insists “now is not the time” for a referendum, setting her on course for a showdown with the Edinburgh administration just when the U.K. government wants to devote all its energies to the EU talks.