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British Prime Minister Theresa May, pictured here leaving an EU summit, has said she wants to leave the European single market in order to be able to control immigration / Photo: EC/Consilium

UK launches exit from the EU

Britain formally launched the process for leaving the European Union today, nine months after the island nation voted to leave the EU.

Britain became the first country ever to seek a divorce, striking a blow at the heart of the union forged from the ashes of World War II.

Just days after the Union’s 60th birthday, Britain handed over a momentous letter to the EU president in Brussels on Wednesday, triggering Article 50 of the bloc’s Lisbon Treaty and firing the starting gun on a two-year countdown towards Brexit.

The notification kickstarts months of what will be protracted and difficult negotiations between London and Brussels over outstanding bills, immigration and future trade ties.

Tim Barrow, Britain’s ambassador to the European Union, personally delivered the letter to EU President Donald Tusk’s office in Brussels.

UK Finance minister Philip Hammond said the letter would set out “how we want to take the negotiation forward and how we see this negotiation developing”.

While the EU scrambles to contain the fallout from Britain’s departure after four decades of membership, British Prime Minister Theresa May is also battling to keep her deeply divided nation together.

The Article 50 trigger comes a day after Scotland’s parliament voted in favour of holding a fresh referendum on independence from Britain in a bid to hold on to EU ties.

Leaders of the other 27 EU nations are holding a summit on 29 April to forge their own response to Brexit, and it could be weeks before formal talks start.

“The die is cast!” European Parliament president Antonio Tajani told the German newspaper Die Welt.

“In the end, we have to be clear that being a member state of the EU is different from being a partner.”

Both sides also want to resolve the post-Brexit status of more than three million European nationals living in Britain, and one million British expats in the EU.

Britain voted by a 52% majority to leave the European Union, the first member state ever to do so.

The divorce process under Article 50 gives a two-year framework for negotiations.

May has said she wants to leave the European single market in order to be able to control immigration.

The European Commission is expected to provide an initial answer to Britain’s Article 50 notification within 48 hours but negotiations are not expected to start for several weeks or even months.

Kwame Appiah with agency reports

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