London (dpa) – Prime Minister Theresa May on Wednesday said she has started the process of negotiating Britain’s exit from the European Union, marking a “great turning point” for the country.
“Today, the government acts on the democratic will of the British people,” May told parliament minutes after her government delivered the letter in Brussels that began two years of Brexit negotiations.
“This an historic moment from which there can be no turning back,” she said, promising to withdraw Britain from the EU single market and “take control of the things that matter most to us.”
European Council President Donald Tusk tweeted a photo of British Ambassador to the EU Tim Barrow handing over May’s letter, officially notifying the EU of Britain’s decision to withdraw from the bloc after more than 40 years.
“There is no reason to pretend that this is a happy day, neither in Brussels nor in London,” said Tusk.
“I will not pretend that I am happy today. Paradoxically, there is also something positive in Brexit. Brexit makes us more determined and united than before,” Tusk said referring to the remaining 27 EU member states.
Tusk also said that he and the European Commission had a strong mandate to protect the interests of the other 27 member states, in what he described as “difficult negotiations ahead.”
“There is nothing to win in this process. In the essence, this is about damage control. Our goal is to minimize costs for EU citizens, businesses and member states. We will do everything in our power to achieve this.”
Tusk said he would share his proposal on the guidelines of the negotiations on Friday.
He finished by saying: “We already miss you.”
May said protecting the rights of EU citizens in Britain and British citizens in the EU will be an “early priority” in the negotiations.
“We approach these talks constructively, respectfully and in a spirit of sincere cooperation,” she said.
Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond told the BBC before May’s speech that the government was confident of reaching a Brexit agreement within two years.
“We are going to get a deal,” Hammond said. “The question is about the shape and nature of that deal.”
He said May’s January speech, which formed the basis of Wednesday’s letter, had “sent a clear signal to our European partners that we understand that we can’t cherry-pick, we can’t have our cake and eat it.”
But Hammond suggested that the EU’s demand for outstanding contributions from Britain, which some officials have estimated at 60 billion euros (65 billion dollars), could be a sticking point.
“We simply do not recognize some of the very large numbers that have been bandied about in Brussels,” he said.
Austria stated that it foresees tough negotiations ahead. Germany said it was “well-prepared” for the talks.
A statement from the remaining 27 EU members said they would remain unified.
“We regret that [Britain] will leave the European Union, but we are ready for the process that we now will have to follow,” the statement read.
May called for national unity in her speech to parliament, urging optimism and belief in the “British spirit.”
“At moments like these – great turning points in our national story – the choices we make define the character of our nation,” she said.
May has promised to keep close trade relations with Europe as she builds “a strong, self-governing global Britain” with control over its own borders and laws.
The British parliament backed May’s Article 50 plan earlier this month after six weeks of debate.
On Tuesday, a cross-party group of pro-EU lawmakers issued a “Brexit contract” and promised to hold May to account on 10 key areas during her negotiations.
Britain voted to leave the EU last June by a majority of 52 per cent, after campaigns that exposed many of the country’s political, social and geographical divisions.