LONDON — Britain will begin the formal process of leaving the European Union by the end of March, Prime Minister Theresa May said Sunday, seeking to ease concern about the nation’s future and the threat of reduced foreign investment and the weakening of the economy.
Members of the ruling Conservative Party applauded wildly as May said the British people had made it clear that they wanted a clear date for exiting the EU and that she was going to deliver. European leaders and company executives have pushed the government to say when it plans to trigger Article 50 of the EU treaty, starting talks on the U.K.’s departure, so they can begin preparing for a post-EU Britain.
“We will invoke it when we are ready, and we will be ready soon,” she said. “We will invoke Article 50 no later than the end of March next year.”
While the prime minister had previously hinted that she planned to initiate Britain’s exit early next year, many observers had speculated she would wait until the conclusion of France’s presidential election in May or perhaps even the German elections in late summer or fall of next year.
But basking in the glow of party acolytes, a beaming May sounded as if she had campaigned for Britain to leave the EU all along — even though she had opposed that outcome before the June 23 referendum. In what sounded like a stump speech for “leave,” she hit on the emotive issues of sovereignty, immigration and world status.
She insisted there would be no unnecessary delays in bringing Brexit to pass — and that Britain would fight any legal challenges intended to derail the move. She sternly rejected the idea that the government would circumvent the result, making a face as she commented on those still fighting to stay.
Analysts said the deadline for starting the talks was welcome, but businesses still need more detail about what Brexit will mean for trade and immigration.
While Britain seeks to control immigration from the EU, free movement of labour is a founding principle of the bloc. This means that any restrictions on immigration are likely to result in barriers to trade between Britain and the EU, said Jonathan Portes, a senior fellow at the National Institute for Economic and Social Research.
“That means continued uncertainty for businesses, both those who trade with the EU and those who employ EU nationals,” Portes tweeted. “What we cannot do is delude ourselves that we can ‘have our cake and eat it.”’
In addition to setting out her timetable, the prime minister said she would ask Parliament to repeal the European Communities Act, which automatically makes EU rules the law of the land in Britain. At the same time, the government will incorporate all EU laws into British law and then repeal measures as necessary on a case-by-case basis, she said.
“That means that the United Kingdom will be an independent, sovereign nation,” she said. “It will be making its own laws.”
May said that by offering a timetable now, she hopes to encourage the EU to begin preliminary work that will help the negotiations go smoothly once they begin. EU leaders so far have rejected any such discussions.
The president of the 28-nation EU’s governing European Council, Donald Tusk, offered support for her position. He had told her at a recent Downing Street meeting that the “ball is now in your court.”
“PM May’s declaration brings welcome clarity on start of Brexit talks,” he tweeted Sunday. “Once Art. 50’s triggered, EU27 will engage to safeguard its interests.”
The perception that EU immigrants have strained public services and changed the face of many communities was a factor for many British citizens who voted to leave the EU. May said that she intends to heed public opinion on that point.
“Apart from the message of leaving the European Union, I think there was also a clear message from the British people that they wanted us to control movement of people from the EU coming into the UK, so we will deliver on that,” she said.
May also flatly rejected the idea that elements within the United Kingdom might be able to negotiate a deal for themselves. The message was clearly aimed at Scotland, which only narrowly rejected an independence move in 2014 and had voted overwhelmingly to stay in the EU. Scotland wants a place at the table because of its numerous trade ties with the EU.
“We will negotiate as one United Kingdom and we will leave the European Union as one United Kingdom. There is no opt-out for Brexit,” May told the conference. “I will never allow divisive nationalists to undermine the precious union between the four nations of our United Kingdom.”
Critics quickly pounced on the first tangible moves on the process in weeks. Conservative Anna Soubry, a former minister who is in the Tory pro-Europe wing of the party, told ITV that she was concerned that May would trigger the article so soon, warning that companies such as Nissan might leave without a deal on the single market.
“Triggering Brexit as early as March really concerns me, troubles me hugely, because we won’t have had the French elections, we won’t have had the German elections, and I’m sorry, it is going to take a lot of time and effort to disentangle ourselves and get the right deal,” she said.
The opposition Labour Party asked for more clarity on the proposals. Stephen Kinnock, a member of Parliament from Aberavon, said May has yet to say what leaving will mean in practice.
“The Brexit process will give this government more power to re-shape Britain than any government has had since the Second World War,” he said in a statement. “And yet what Brexit means is still unclear, and the government has no specific mandate for its negotiating position, assuming that it has one.”