Prime Minister Theresa May has won the right to launch divorce proceedings with the European Union and begin two years of talks that will shape the future of Britain and Europe.
May, who was appointed prime minister shortly after Britain voted to leave the EU in June, faced down attempts in both the lower and upper houses of parliament to add conditions to legislation giving her right to launch the divorce.
Both houses backed the so-called Brexit bill and after securing symbolic approval from Queen Elizabeth, which could come early on Tuesday, May has the right to begin what could be Britain’s most complex negotiations since World War Two.
But beyond saying she will begin the formal process by the end of this month, May has yet to answer the question of exactly when, and end nine months of guesswork as to how her government will approach the unchartered territory of leaving the EU.
“We are now on the threshold of the most important negotiation for our country in a generation,” Brexit minister David Davis said in a statement after parliament approved the legislation on Monday.
“We have a plan to build a Global Britain, and take advantage of its new place in the world by forging new trading links.”
The date of when she will trigger Article 50 of the EU’s Lisbon Treaty and start the divorce has all but overshadowed new complications to the talks: Scotland’s demand for a new independence referendum and a call by Northern Ireland’s largest party for a vote on splitting with Britain.
Her spokesman dismissed as “speculation” media reports that the prime minister would launch the talks on Tuesday, and instead gave the biggest hint yet it would be toward the end of the month: “I have said ‘end’ many times but it would seem I didn’t put it in capital letters quite strongly enough.”
But whenever May decides to launch the talks, her government will have to weigh up competing demands during the two years of talks provided for by Article 50, which envisages a deal on divorce terms while “taking account of the framework for its future relationship with the Union”.
May has revealed little of her strategy but has a long wish list – wanting to win a free trade deal, maintain security cooperation, regain control over immigration and restore sovereignty over British laws.
The EU has balked at her demands, saying they amount to “having your cake and eating it”, and May’s government acknowledges it is a bold opening position.
While the government has signalled areas for compromise and is keen to remind EU leaders of the benefits of cooperation, May’s government is also preparing for the possibility of crashing out of the bloc with no deal.
An aide at one department said last month that there was a backlog at May’s office as her team scrutinises all departmental reports, leading some to question whether her team is ready for the talks which could soon get bogged down.
Britain’s commitments to pay into the EU budget — which officials in the bloc estimate to reach around 60 billion euros — are shaping up to be one of the first, and possibly the most contentious parts, of the divorce talks.
“There will be a lot of different issues jostling for attention so I think what will happen is we will get into in a bit of a holding pattern,” said Anand Menon, director of the UK in a Changing Europe think tank.
“I don’t know for how long, but I can’t see this being resolved in the two years.”
(Additional reporting by Kylie MacLellan; Editing by Jonathan Oatis)