LONDON: Britain formally launches the process for leaving the European Union on Wednesday, a historic step that has divided the country and thrown into question the future of the European project. Just days after the EU’s 60th birthday, Britain is poised to become the first country ever to seek a divorce, striking a blow at the heart of the union forged from the ashes of World War II. Nine months since the shock British referendum vote to leave the EU, Prime Minister Theresa May will trigger Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, meaning Britain is set to leave the EU in 2019. “We must no longer be defined by the votes we cast in the referendum – but a determination to make a success of the result,” May will tell MPs later on Wednesday, according to extracts of her speech released by her Downing Street office. “The triggering of Article 50 is the moment for the country to come together,” May will say, a day after Scotland’s parliament voted in favour of holding a fresh referendum on independence from Britain, in a bid to hold on to EU ties. May has already signed the Brexit letter to be delivered to EU president Donald Tusk on Wednesday.
The two leaders spoke by phone on Tuesday ahead of the momentous event. Brussels and London face monumentally difficult negotiations over outstanding bills, immigration and future trade ties. The process has already split Britain, where 52 percent voted for Brexit last June, but 48 percent wanted to stay in the EU — including a majority in Scotland, which has renewed its threat to secede. On Tuesday, Scotland’s semi-autonomous parliament backed a call by its nationalist government for a new referendum on independence before Brexit. Scotland is particularly concerned about leaving Europe’s single market — the price May says must be paid to end mass migration, a key voter concern. The prime minister rebuffed the referendum request and has vowed to fight for a new relationship with Brussels that will leave Britain stronger and more united than before. The EU, too, is determined to preserve its own unity and has said that any Brexit deal must not encourage other countries to follow Britain out the door. Britons are as divided as they were in the referendum. Tens of thousands of people marched through London on Saturday demanding Britain keep its 44-year-old EU membership, urging politicians to “stop this madness”. But many are elated after waiting years for this moment, including 66-year-old pensioner Christine Garrett who was out shopping at a street market in Bethnal Green in east London.