They really did it. Nine months after the close-fought Brexit referendum and just four days after the European Union celebrated the 60th anniversary of its founding treaty, Britain’s EU envoy, Tim Barrow, hand-delivered a letter to European Council President Donald Tusk on Wednesday, formally beginning the process of Britain’s exit from the EU.
The letter formally triggers Article 50 of the 2007 Lisbon treaty, which gives countries two years to negotiate the terms of their withdrawal from the EU. Between now and March 2019, British negotiators will do their best to get a deal that maintains access to the EU common market for British businesses while giving the British government full control over regulations and border controls.
Prime Minister Theresa May has controversially said she would prioritize border controls over trade, accepting nothing less than full political separation from the Union. But two years is a long time, both London and Brussels have hinted that negotiations might be extended, and it’s hard to predict just what Britain’s relationship to Europe might look like at the end of the process.
It’s also hard to know what Britain’s departure will ultimately mean for the EU. Brexit has undoubtedly shaken the 28-member body to its core, at a time when it’s also still reeling from a currency crisis and the divisions sparked by an unprecedented influx of refugees into Europe. Tusk grumbled in a speech on Wednesday that there is “no reason to pretend this is a happy day.”
On the other hand, there are signs in the past few weeks that the British decision isn’t going to trigger the rush to the exits and dramatic collapse that many feared. Dutch far-right leader Geert Wilders, who favors Dutch withdrawal from the EU, had a disappointing finish in elections on March 15. In elections on Monday in Bulgaria, one of the EU’s newest members, a pro-EU center-right party won, fending off a challenge from a Socialist party with strong links to Russia. German Chancellor, and de facto EU leader, Angela Merkel’s prospects for re-election in September are looking stronger after her party won a closely watched race in Saarland. (In any event, her closest challenger, Social Democrat Martin Schulz, is a former president of the EU Parliament and a strong EU supporter.) And it’s still too close for comfort, but French centrist Emmanuel Macron, who is campaigning on a platform of reforming the EU rather than ditching it, looks likely to hold off a challenge from the far-right Marine Le Pen in elections that begin next month.
There’s still a lot dividing Europe and this is undoubtedly a period of uncertainty, but it’s just possible that Britain’s unceremonious departure, fears of Russian military aggression and political meddling, and the arrival of Europe-bashing U.S. President Donald Trump may finally have given the troubled union some things to unite around.