Brexit countdown: UK formally pitches itself into the unknown

British prime minister Theresa May will file formal Brexit divorce papers today, pitching the UK into the unknown and triggering years of uncertain negotiations that will test the endurance of Ireland and the EU.

Nine months after Britons voted to leave, Ms May will notify EU Council president Donald Tusk in a letter that the UK really is quitting the club it joined in 1973.

Ms May, an initial opponent of Brexit who won the top job in the political turmoil after the referendum vote, will then have two years to settle the terms of the divorce before it comes into effect in late March 2019.

“We stand on the threshold of a significant moment for Britain as we begin the negotiations that will lead us toward a new partnership with Europe,” she said. 

“We are going to take this opportunity to forge a more global Britain.”

As divorce talks begin, Ms May faces one of the toughest jobs of any recent British prime minister: holding the UK together in the face of Scottish independence demands, while conducting arduous talks with 27 EU states on finance, trade, security and other complex issues.

The outcome of the negotiations will shape the future of Britain’s economy, the world’s fifth biggest, and determine whether London can keep its place as one of the top two global financial centres.

For the EU, reeling from successive crises over debt and refugees, the loss of Britain is the biggest blow to 60 years of efforts to forge European unity in the wake of two devastating world wars.

Its leaders say they do not want to punish Britain. But with nationalist anti-EU parties on the rise across the bloc, they cannot afford to give London generous terms that might encourage other member states to follow its example and break away.

EU officials expect Ms May’s notice of intention to leave the bloc under Article 50 of the EU’s Lisbon Treaty to be hand-delivered by British diplomats this morning.

Within 48 hours of reading the letter, Mr Tusk will send the 27 other states draft negotiating guidelines. 

He will outline his views in Malta, where he will be attending a congress of centre-right leaders. Ambassadors of the 27 will then meet in Brussels to discuss Mr Tusk’s draft.

The course of the Brexit talks is uncertain. Ms May said she wants to negotiate Britain’s divorce and the future trading relationship with the EU within the two-year period, though EU officials say that will be hard.

Meanwhile, the Scottish parliament has backed Nicola Sturgeon’s call for the powers to hold a second independence referendum.

However, Ms May has said she will block another referendum while the Brexit process takes place, stating “now is not the time”.

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