This is an historic moment from which there can be no turning back, says May
LONDON: Britain launched the historic process of leaving the EU on Wednesday but its European partners were quick to warn of the difficult path that lies ahead.
Prime Minister Theresa May declared there was "no turning back" after she gave EU President Donald Tusk formal notification of Britain’s intention to withdraw following last June’s shock referendum.
The momentous move, which comes just days after the EU celebrated its 60th birthday, leaves Britain deeply divided and has thrown a question mark over the future of the 28-nation bloc which rose from the ashes of World War II.
"This is an historic moment from which there can be no turning back," May told MPs, to cheers from members of her ruling Conservative party.
British ambassador Tim Barrow handed-delivered the letter to Tusk triggering Article 50 of the EU’s Lisbon Treaty, starting the two-year countdown to leaving.
"We already miss you," Tusk said in Brussels.
But French President Francois Hollande struck a tough tone, warning that Brexit would be "economically painful" for Britain, the first country to leave the bloc.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel also rebuffed May’s call for negotiations on Britain’s withdrawal to run alongside talks on a future trade agreement.
Trade is a key issue as Britain prepares to leave Europe’s single market in order to control migration, but Merkel said the exit deal must come first.
"Only when this question is dealt with, can we, hopefully soon after, begin talking about our future relationship," she said.
Merkel said the other 27 EU nations were ready to negotiate in a "fair and constructive" way, and said she hoped Britain would "adopt the same spirit".
The EU is determined to preserve its unity and has said any Brexit deal must not encourage other countries to follow Britain out of the door.
May’s six-page letter struck a conciliatory tone and called for a "deep and special partnership" with Brussels.
While the EU faces the departure of one of its largest and oldest members, May is also battling to keep her divided nation together.
The Brexit vote was only won by a narrow 52-48 margin and Scotland’s nationalist government is now calling for a fresh referendum on independence.
"As we face the opportunities ahead of us on this momentous journey, our shared values, interests and ambitions can -- and must -- bring us together," May said.
Tusk is expected to issue draft guidelines for the negotiations on Friday, but the leaders of the other 27 EU nations will not meet until April 29 to confirm their joint approach.
As with many divorces, negotiations could rapidly turn nasty over money.
The priority for the EU is settling Britain’s outstanding bills, estimated at between 55 and 60 billion euros ($59-65 billion) -- an early battle that could set the tone for the rest of the talks. Both sides are also keen to see a reduction in tensions in Northern Ireland, which will have the UK’s only hard border with the EU.