Britain on Wednesday began the historic process of leaving the European Union, to which it was tethered for over four decades that enriched the country’s economy and other areas, but also generated much ennui over Brussels taking over ever more sovereign powers.
There was a mix of uncertainty and elation – The Guardian called it a “step into the unknown” – as the United Kingdom’s permanent representative in Brussels, Tim Barrow, handed over a letter signed by Prime Minister Theresa May to European Council president Donald Tusk.
The letter invoked Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty that sets out the two-year process for an EU member-state to leave the group. If all phases of the process are completed on time – which many believe unlikely – the exit will be completed by March 29, 2019.
It also sets out the UK’s approach to Brexit-related talks, the intention to repeal the European Communities Act of 1972 that gives effect to EU law in the country, and hope for a “deep and special” partnership with the EU in the future on issues such as security, environment and trade.
In her letter to Brussels, May wrote: “We recognise that it will be a challenge to reach such a comprehensive agreement within the two-year period set out for withdrawal discussions in the (Lisbon) Treaty.
“But we believe it is necessary to agree the terms of our future partnership alongside those of our withdrawal from the EU. We start from a unique position in these discussions – close regulatory alignment, trust in one another’s institutions, and a spirit of cooperation stretching back decades.
“It is for these reasons, and because the future partnership between the UK and the EU is of such importance to both sides, that I am sure it can be agreed in the time period set out by the Treaty. The task before us is momentous but it should not be beyond us.”
UK Independence Party leader Nigel Farage said he “couldn’t be happier” that the Brexit process was finally underway after people voted 52% against 48% to leave the EU in the referendum on June 23 last. Pro-EU quarters insisted it was a “leap in the dark”, as Remain supporters protested outside Parliament.
The development is of much interest to nearly 1,000 Indian companies that use their base in London and the UK to access the European market. Most have already taken steps to deal with the situation by relocating some staff in other European capitals.
It is also a matter of anxiety for thousands of residents of Goan origin who have Portuguese passports, and whose continued stay in the country is linked to the fate of British citizens in EU countries to be decided in early negotiations with Brussels.
India is one of the major countries in the Commonwealth the UK hopes to forge a free trade agreement with in the post-Brexit scenario. Initial talks have already been held with Prime Minister Narendra Modi and other representatives in New Delhi and London.
Pratik Dattani, FICCI’s UK director, told Hindustan Times: “Now that Article 50 has been formally triggered, we expect to see the pace of discussion within government in terms of engagement with countries like India increase”.
“We have seen some clarity over the last few months, and it remains important to note that the free movement of goods and services, and bilateral investment cannot be decoupled from mobility. Britain is still one of the largest economies in the world and will continue to remain a valuable partner for India.”
Matters have been further complicated after the Scotland Parliament on Tuesday passed a resolution to hold another referendum on independence. May, on the other hand, insisted her government would enter into Brexit talks on behalf of the whole United Kingdom.
She said: “When I sit around the negotiating table in the months ahead, I will represent every person in the whole United Kingdom – young and old, rich and poor, city, town, country and all the villages and hamlets in between. And yes, those EU nationals who have made this country their home.”
The pound sterling, which has taken a beating in recent months, was unsteady as May called for unity in a country divided down the middle on the issue of Brexit: “At moments like these – great turning points in our national story – the choices we make define the character of our nation. We can choose to say the task ahead is too great. We can choose to turn our face to the past and believe it can’t be done.
“Or we can look forward with optimism and hope – and to believe in the enduring power of the British spirit. I choose to believe in Britain and that our best days lie ahead.”
Chancellor Philip Hammond cautioned of “some consequences”, telling BBC Radio 4 that the UK “cannot have the cake and eat it too” while negotiating the Brexit deal, referring to claims by some Brexiteers that the country will get the same terms and access to the European Single Market after leaving the EU.
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said the party respected the decision of the British public but vowed to hold the government to account: “Britain is going to change as a result. The question is how … It will be a national failure of historic proportions if the prime minister comes back from Brussels without having secured protection for jobs and living standards.”