* May triggers formal Brexit divorce, says no turning back
* Two years of talks loom; exit planned in 2019
* United Kingdom's future unclear
* Brexit a major blow to European unity efforts
* May wants special ties, links trade and security
(Adds Merkel quotes, European parliament)
By Guy Faulconbridge and Elizabeth Piper
LONDON, March 29 Prime Minister Theresa May
formally began Britain's divorce from the European Union on
Wednesday, declaring there was no turning back and ushering in a
tortuous exit process that will test the bloc's cohesion and
pitch her country into the unknown.
In one of the most significant steps by a British leader
since World War Two, May notified EU Council President Donald
Tusk in a hand-delivered letter that Britain would quit the club
it joined in 1973.
"The United Kingdom is leaving the European Union," May told
parliament nine months after Britain shocked investors and world
leaders by unexpectedly voting to quit the bloc. "This is an
historic moment from which there can be no turning back."
The prime minister, an initial opponent of Brexit who won
the top job in the political turmoil that followed the
referendum vote, now has two years to negotiate the terms of the
divorce before it comes into effect in late March 2019.
May, 60, has one of the toughest jobs of any recent British
prime minister: holding Britain together in the face of renewed
Scottish independence demands, while conducting arduous talks
with 27 other EU states on finance, trade, security and other
The outcome of the negotiations will shape the future of
Britain's $2.6 trillion 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, already reeling from successive crises over debt
and refugees, the loss of Britain is the biggest blow yet to 60
years of efforts to forge European unity in the wake of two
Its leaders say they do not want to punish Britain. But with
nationalist, anti-EU parties on the rise across Europe, they
cannot afford to give London generous terms that might encourage
other member states to break away.
May's notice of the UK's intention to leave the bloc under
Article 50 of the EU's Lisbon Treaty was hand-delivered to Tusk
in Brussels by Tim Barrow, Britain's permanent representative to
the EU, on the top floor of the new Europa Building in Brussels.
That moment formally set the clock ticking on Britain's
two-year exit process. Sterling, which has lost 25 cents against
the dollar since the June 23 referendum, jumped to $1.25.
May signed the six-page Brexit letter on Tuesday night,
pictured alone at the cabinet table beneath a clock, a British
flag and an oil painting of Britain's first prime minister,
Her letter sought to set a positive tone for the talks
though it admitted that the task of extracting the UK from the
EU was momentous and that reaching comprehensive agreements
within two years would be a challenge.
May 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.
"We believe it is necessary to agree the terms of our future
partnership alongside those of our withdrawal from the EU," May
told Tusk in her letter, adding that London wanted an ambitious
free trade agreement with the EU.
"If, however, we leave the European Union without an
agreement the default position is that we would have to trade on
World Trade Organisation terms," she said.
May's most powerful European interlocutor, German
Chancellor Angela Merkel, promised to take a "fair and
constructive" approach to Brexit talks, but said Britain could
negotiate its new relationship only after it untangles existing
"We must deal with many rights and obligations that have
been linked to membership. Only then, later, can we talk about
our future relationship."
TRADE AND SECURITY
May has promised to seek the greatest possible access to
European markets but said Britain was not seeking membership of
the "single market" of 500 million people as she understood
there could be no "cherry picking" of a free trade area based on
unfettered movement of goods, services, capital and people.
Britain will aim to establish its own free trade deals with
countries beyond Europe, and impose limits on immigration from
the continent, May has said.
In an attempt to start Brexit talks on a conciliatory note,
May said she wanted a special partnership with the EU, though
she laced that ambition with an a clear linkage of the economic
and security relationship.
EU leaders will welcome assurances of a constructive
approach, as well as an explicit recognition that Britain cannot
retain the best bits of membership after leaving.
They may be less warm to an implication that Britain could
live with a breakdown of talks on trade coupled with what might
be seen as a threat to disrupt the security and counterterrorism
cooperation for which Britain.
"We should work together to minimise disruption and give as
much certainty as possible," May said. "Weakening our
cooperation for the prosperity and protection of our citizens
would be a costly mistake."
Tusk said the EU would seek to minimise the cost of Brexit
to EU citizens and businesses and that Brussels wanted an
orderly withdrawal for Britain.
"We already miss you," said Tusk who will send the 27 other
states draft negotiating guidelines within 48 hours. "Thank you
In a draft resolution to be voted on next week, lawmakers in
the European Parliament offered a faint glimmer of hope to the
48 percent of British voters who opposed Brexit, saying it was
not too late for Britain to reverse the process.
U.S. President Donald Trump has been an enthusiastic
proponent of Brexit, unlike his predecessor Barack Obama. White
House spokesman Sean Spicer struck a neutral tone on Wednesday,
saying Washington respected the will of British voters and
backed a strong Britain and strong EU.
"Whatever future the UK-EU relationship looks like, we want
the UK to remain a strong leader in Europe, for both the UK, the
EU and Europe to remain strong leaders globally," Spicer said.
"DAMN NARROW" TIME FRAME
The course of the Brexit talks - and even their scope - are
"The time frame is damn narrow," said Martin Schaefer, a
spokesman for the German Foreign Ministry.
In recent months, German officials have made clear that they
do not believe there is time to negotiate a bespoke transitional
agreement for Britain that would come into force immediately
A huge number of questions remain, including whether
exporters will keep tariff-free access to the single market and
whether British-based banks will still be able to serve
continental clients, not to mention immigration and the future
rights of EU citizens in the UK and Britons living in Europe.
Adding more uncertainty, France and Germany both face
elections this year.
"It’s bad news for everybody. It’s a wedge pushed into the
European project," said French centrist presidential candidate
Emmanuel Macron, who has made clear he would ensure Britain
gains no undue advantages outside the Union.
At home, a divided Britain faces strains that could lead to
its break-up. In the Brexit referendum, England and Wales voted
to leave the EU but Scotland and Northern Ireland voted to stay.
Scottish nationalists have demanded an independence
referendum that May has refused. In Northern Ireland, rival
parties are embroiled in a major political crisis and Sinn Fein
nationalists are demanding a vote on leaving the UK and uniting
with the Republic of Ireland.
May said she knew that triggering Brexit would be a day of
celebration for some and disappointment for others.
"Now that the decision to leave has been made and the
process is under way, it is time to come together," she said.
(Additional reporting by Alastair Macdonald, Jan Strupczewski
and Yves Herman in Brussels, Michel Rose in Paris, Noah Barkin
in Berlin and Kylie MacLellan, William James, Estelle Shirbon,
Kate Holton, Paul Sandle and Anjuli Davies in London; Writing by
Guy Faulconbridge; Editing by Mark Trevelyan, Peter Millership,
Giles Elgood and Peter Graff)