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Theresa May to trigger Article 50 on March 29

Politico, Mar 20

So it’s official. Britain will formally begin the process of withdrawing from the European Union on March 29.

The news was relayed in person to the office of European Council President Donald Tusk at around 10:30 a.m. on Monday by the U.K.’s permanent representative to the European Union, Tim Barrow.

The formal triggering will take the form of a letter from Theresa May to Tusk, Downing Street confirmed. The prime minister’s spokesman declined to give further details of the content of the letter, but senior government officials familiar with the government’s thinking expect it to set out a “positive” vision of the future relationship Britain wants with Brussels after Brexit, including a comprehensive free trade agreement.

Negotiations should start “promptly” after the notification, the PM’s spokesman said, but acknowledged that it was “obviously right that the EU27 have time to agree their position.”

Tusk tweeted his response to the news, confirming that “within 48 hours of the UK triggering Article 50, I will present the draft #Brexit guidelines to the EU27 Member States.”

The EU27 are then expected to meet in April to set early guidelines for the EU’s negotiating mandate — the EU’s Brexit red lines — which will then go to the European Commission, which will draw up a detailed negotiation strategy. This will then be signed off by the 27 at another European Council meeting, likely to be held around June.

Speculation remains rife in Westminster that May will use the triggering of Article 50 as the springboard to announce a snap general election in May. However, the prime minister’s spokesman was adamant that Downing Street remained opposed to an election before 2020.

“There is no change in our position. There isn’t going to be one,” the spokesman said, when asked about the prospect of an early election. “It’s not going to happen.”

May’s closest advisers had been weighing up whether to trigger Article 50 earlier in the month, aware that it would be seen as bad form in European capitals to overshadow this weekend’s 60th anniversary celebrations of the signing of the Treaty of Rome.

However, Nicola Sturgeon’s demand for a second independence referendum in Scotland last week — coupled with the delay in getting the Article 50 bill through the House of Lords — limited the government’s choices.

Last week Number 10 officials confirmed the prime minister would not trigger Article 50 until the end of the month, but declined to give a specific date. By waiting until Wednesday it allows May to brief the cabinet on Tuesday and be grilled by MPs at prime minister’s questions on Wednesday afternoon. May will also give a formal statement to MPs.

“We have always been clear we would trigger by the end of March and we have kept to that timetable,” the prime minister’s spokesman said.

Triggering Article 50 initiates a two-year process of exit talks, although this time period can be extended if all parties agree to it. The spokesman said the U.K. government remained “confident” that the process could be concluded within the two-year timeframe, meaning that the U.K. would formally leave the European Union by the end of March 2019 — ending 46 years of membership.

News of the Article 50 date — known as “B Day” among expectant Euroskeptics — was a closely guarded government secret. May’s official spokesman revealed the news to journalists at the daily 11 a.m. lobby briefing Monday.

Britain’s Brexit Secretary David Davis said: “Last June, the people of the U.K. made the historic decision to leave the EU. Next Wednesday, the government will deliver on that decision and formally start the process by triggering Article 50.

“We are on the threshold of the most important negotiation for this country for a generation.

“The government is clear in its aims: a deal that works for every nation and region of the U.K. and indeed for all of Europe — a new, positive partnership between the U.K. and our friends and allies in the European Union.”

Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron was first to react to the news, warning that May was “embarking on an extreme and divisive Brexit… without a plan, and without a clue.”

“On the day Theresa May is traveling the country claiming she wants to bring the United Kingdom together, she lets it be known she is about to unleash division and bitterness.

“She has chosen the hardest and most divisive form of Brexit, choosing to take us out of the single market before she has even tried to negotiate. That’s why we believe the people should have the final say over the Conservative Brexit deal.”

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