Signed, sealed, delivered: Article 50 activated

And they’re off. Theresa May has officially notified Donald Tusk, the president of the European Council, that Britain is leaving the European Union. A letter was delivered to Mr Tusk in Brussels on Wednesday as, back in London, Mrs May gave a simultaneous statement to the House of Commons. “Today the government acts on the democratic will of the British people,” said the prime minister, stressing this is an historic moment from which there is no turning back.

The notification, aka the famous “triggering of Article 50”, begins a two-year period during which the UK and the EU must agree the terms of withdrawal. President Tusk told a press conference there was “no reason to pretend this is a happy day”. By 31 March he will distribute draft guidelines on the EU’s negotiating stance, which will be finalised at a special summit of country leaders on 29 April.

Negotiations, which on the British side will be led by David Davis, will be tough. Issues to work through include unspent EU funds due to UK regions, cross-border security arrangements and the future status of UK and EU expats. Mr Davis is confident this can be done by October 2018. But the Institute for Government, a think tank, believes talks won’t begin in earnest for at least another six months. Which, taken alongside another six months or so that Brussels will need before March 2019 to approve the final deal, puts a severe squeeze on the time available.

What of the UK’s negotiating demands? Mrs May has been criticised by some for making uncompromising promises to the public which she simply cannot keep. But others have more recently noted a strategic softening of the prime minister’s line on matters like the rights of EU citizens living in Britain. Her letter to President Tusk was indeed conciliatory in tone. But we must wait to see how the battle between the two sides’ innumerable competing demands plays out.

All sides have pledged to be fair and open-minded. Indeed, Mrs May’s speech on Wednesday was striking for the lengths it went to in underlining how Brexit marked not an inward turn, but the start of a bold new era of collaboration. And she pledged to provide certainty throughout the process for businesses and the public sector; the publication on Thursday of a white paper on the so-called “Great Repeal Bill” marked the first step of this process.

Many questions of course remain, not least over Scotland and Northern Ireland. The former’s parliament has voted in favour of calling for a new referendum on independence while the latter is facing the resumption of direct rule from London. And the two year leaving process is only the start: after that Britain will have to negotiate trade deals, a process which usually takes half a decade. On this and much more there is plenty of work to be done. We now have certainty that it will start. And as Mrs May said, there is no turning back.

Written by Nick Reading, Senior Account Manager (@NickReading1)

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