May sets date for the start of Brexit

BRITAIN will begin leaving the European Union on March 29, it said yesterday, setting a course to become the first country to withdraw from the bloc by March 2019.

Nine months after the stunning referendum vote for Brexit, Prime Minister Theresa May’s government will finally trigger Article 50 of the EU’s Lisbon Treaty next week, starting a two-year exit process.

The European Commission said it was ready to begin negotiations, although a source in Brussels said it would take “four to six weeks” to arrange a summit to agree a common EU position.

Britain is one of the oldest and largest members of the 28-nation bloc, and its departure has raised fears for the EU’s future as euroskeptic movements gain support across the continent.

London has repeatedly said it wants to maintain good relations with its European allies, but major battles await, in particular over budget contributions, immigration and future trade ties.

Britain has said it wants to agree its divorce and a new relationship with Europe within the two years.

The deal would have to be agreed by all the EU’s national and some regional parliaments.

May’s office repeated yesterday that a deal is possible, although lawmakers have warned her government to prepare for failure — and for Britain to crash out of the EU with no agreement in place.

The notification of Article 50 will take the form of a letter to EU President Donald Tusk, followed by a statement by May in the House of Commons.

Tusk has said he would issue draft guidelines for negotiations within 48 hours, although these will need to be approved by EU leaders.

May’s preparations for Brexit were wrong-footed last week when Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon announced plans to hold a new independence referendum in order to maintain its ties with the EU.

The prime minister is expected to visit Scotland before triggering Article 50, as part of a tour of the UK that began in Wales yesterday and will also take in Northern Ireland.

Scotland and Northern Ireland voted to stay in the EU in the June 23 referendum, while England and Wales voted to leave.

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