Britain to start EU divorce negotiations by end of March 2017 Islamabad 03-Oct-16

BIRMINGHAM: British Prime Minister Theresa May announced on Sunday that her government will trigger Brexit negotiations by the end of March, putting the country on course to leave the European Union by early 2019.

The move will plunge Europe’s second largest economy into two years of what is likely to be painful horsetrading with the rest of its EU partners, who have voiced deep frustration at the delay in setting a date to start the divorce proceedings.

It was May’s firmest commitment yet to a clear break with the EU since she became Conservative Party leader and prime minister in the political upheaval that followed the shock June referendum vote to quit the bloc.

“Britain is going to leave the European Union,” May told the opening day of the Conservative Party conference in the central English city of Birmingham.

“There will be no unnecessary delays in invoking Article 50. We will invoke it when we are ready. And we will be ready soon,” she said, referring to the article in the EU’s Lisbon treaty setting out a two-year process to leave.

“We will invoke Article 50 no later than the end of March next year.”

She has said she will seek the best deal from the 27 other EU members, but told the conference she would not give too many details of her negotiating strategy, for fear of weakening Britain’s hand.

European powers keen to dampen rising euroscepticism in their own backyards have been taking a hard line with Britain, warning that informal negotiations cannot start before the two-year notification process is triggered. May’s announcement means the process will start before next year’s crucial elections in Germany and France, with an uncertain impact on the polls in the EU’s most powerful nations.

There are already divisions within May’s government over whether to go for a ‘hard’ or ‘soft’ withdrawal.

‘Hard’ Brexit would mean quickly severing all links with EU institutions and pulling out of the single market, relying instead on World Trade Organization rules to trade overseas.

‘Soft’ Brexit would retain access to the single market in some form, but EU leaders have made clear that this would require continued free movement for EU workers into Britain.

Uncontrolled mass immigration from the EU was a major factor in Britain’s historic vote to become the first country to leave the bloc after four decades of membership.

Brussels has insisted that if Britain wants freedom of trade with the EU, it must also accept freedom of movement.

While May said she wanted free trade in goods and services, Britain was not leaving the EU “only to give up control of immigration again. “We will decide for ourselves how we control immigration.”

The announcements by May – who campaigned relatively quietly for Britain to remain in the EU – were welcomed by both European leaders and Conservative eurosceptics.

EU President Donald Tusk wrote on Twitter that it brought ‘welcome clarity’, adding that once Article 50 was triggered, the EU would ‘engage to safeguard its interests’.

Leading Conservative eurosceptic MP Bernard Jenkin called May’s comments ‘pitch perfect’.

In another act designed to reassure eurosceptics in her party, May also announced Sunday that a ‘Great Repeal Bill’ would be introduced to scrap the supremacy of EU laws in Britain on the day of exit from the bloc.

However, May also insisted at the party conference that she would not be giving a ‘blow by blow account’ of her negotiating strategy.

She also rejected any distinction between ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ Brexits as a ‘false dichotomy’.

“Come on. The referendum result was clear. It was legitimate. It was the biggest vote for change this country has ever known. Brexit means Brexit – and we’re going to make a success of it,” she added. May’s announcements drew praise from Conservative activists in Birmingham.

“She’s been respectful both those who voted to leave and the feelings of those who voted to stay,” said one, Rachel Joyce.

“Pragmatically it’s about the right time. She needs to line all of the ducks up before she triggers Article 50.”

On the face of it, May – who speaks again Wednesday to give a keynote closing speech – starts the party conference in a strong position.

Opinion polls put the Conservatives well ahead of the deeply divided main opposition Labour Party under its veteran leftist leader Jeremy Corbyn.

But she has ruled out holding a general election before the next one is due in 2020, telling this week’s Sunday Times newspaper it would ‘introduce a note of instability’. 

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