UK triggers BREXIT

The Times, 29 March 2017.

Shortly after 12:20 this afternoon Sir Tim Barrow, Britain’s permanent representative to the European Union, hand-delivered Theresa May’s six-page letter informing the bloc of Britain’s intention to leave.

You can read the letter in full here. But here are a few early thoughts.

In her letter Mrs May comes close to threatening Europe that future security co-operation with the UK is dependent on a good economic deal.

“In security terms a failure to reach agreement would mean our cooperation in the fight against crime and terrorism would be weakened,” she writes.

Further on in the letter she warns: “Europe’s security is more fragile today than at any time since the end of the Cold War. Weakening our cooperation for the prosperity and protection of our citizens would be a costly mistake.”

This is very significant. Just two months ago a senior cabinet minister insisted privately that the UK would not play ‘the security card’ in the talks, saying it would appear cynical and be counter-productive. The government has clearly changed its mind.

The letter also appears to set the stage for an early battle with the EU over the agenda for the talks. Mrs May makes clear that she expects the divorce talks to run concurrently with talks about a new trade deal.

As she puts it: “We will need to discuss how we determine a fair settlement of the UK’s rights and obligations as a departing member state, in accordance with the law and in the spirit of the United Kingdom’s continuing partnership with the EU.

“But we believe it is necessary to agree the terms of our future partnership alongside those of our withdrawal from the EU.”

The EU has already rejected this and it will be one of the early flashpoints.

On a positive note Mrs May used some interesting language – inserted deliberately into the text as a signal of goodwill to European leaders.

In particular, Germany was looking for the phrase “sincere cooperation” to appear in the letter. And it did. In bold. Mrs May promised that the UK would engage “constructively and respectfully, in a spirit of sincere cooperation.”

Three times she refers to the “deep and special partnership” she hopes to forge between Britain and Brussels.

But if she hoped that tone would be reciprocated in Brussels she will be disappointed. The immediate response from Donald Tusk, the president of the European Council, was more guarded and less optimistic.

In a brief press conference following Mrs May’s Commons statement, Mr Tusk said he would not pretend it was a “happy” occasion, adding: “There is nothing to win in this process and I am talking about both sides. In essence, this is about damage control.”

The only positive of Brexit, he said, was that it had made the remaining 27 member states more united.

Mr Tusk ended his three and a half minute response with a message to Britain: “We already miss you. Thank you and goodbye.”

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