The UK’s intention to leave the EU was spelt out in a sixpage letter to Brussels. After its delivery, the Prime Minister insisted there could be “no turning back”.
Britain will finally leave at midnight on March 29, 2019.
UK ambassador Sir Tim Barrow handed EU Council President Donald Tusk the historic document requesting the activation of the bloc’s Article 50 departure mechanism at 12.20pm.
Mrs May’s 2,200-word farewell message, signed by her on Wednesday, sparked jubilation among Brexit campaigners yesterday.
EU officials later confirmed that the two-year Article 50 process cannot be reversed once activated.
Activating it marked a spectacular triumph for the Daily Express’s crusade for Britain to quit the EU, begun almost seven years ago and culminating in the referendum victory for leave last June.
Shortly after the letter was handed over, Mrs May addressed MPs in the Commons, telling them that the Government had acted “on the democratic will of the British people”.
She said: “The Article 50 process is now underway and, in accordance with the wishes of the British People, the United Kingdom is leaving the European Union.
“This is an historic moment from which there can be no turning back.
“Britain is leaving the European Union – we are going to make our own decisions and our own laws. We are going to take control of the things that matter most to us.
“And we are going to take this opportunity to build a stronger, fairer Britain – a country that our children and grandchildren are proud to call home.”
She called on the country to unite, vowing to “look forward with optimism and hope and to believe in the enduring power of the British spirit.”
She added: “I choose to believe in Britain and that our best days lie ahead.”
The Article 50 move proved gloom among Eurocrats and Remain campaigners last night. On receiving the letter, a glum-looking Mr Tusk said: “We already miss you. Thank you and goodbye.”
A statement from the EU Council said: “We regret that the United Kingdom will leave the European Union but we are ready for the process that we now will have to follow.”
European Parliament president Antonio Tajani said yesterday was not “a good day” for the EU.
“Brexit marks a new chapter in our Union’s history, but we’re ready, we’ll move on, hoping UK remains close partner,” he said.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel last night warned Mrs May that the price of a divorce settlement will have to be thrashed out before talks on a future trade deal can begin
“Britain and the EU, including Germany, have become closely entwined over years of membership,” Merkel said.
“In the talks we must clarify how these close ties can be untangled.”
But Richard Tice, co-chairman of the Leave Means Leave anti-Brussels pressure group, described yesterday as “an historic moment in defining our national renewal. I welcome the Prime Minister’s letter and her commitment that the objective of negotiations will be to provide certainty – this is what British businesses want to see,” he said.
“The job of leaving the EU is far from over – it is only just beginning.”
In the Commons yesterday, senior Tory Owen Paterson predicted widespread celebrations at the beginning of the exit process.
The former Cabinet minister told Mrs May: “Can I thank and congratulate you for resolutely sticking to your promise to the British people to trigger Article 50 before the end of March.
“There will be celebrations all around the country, nowhere more so than in our remote coastal communities where health and wealth of our fishing grounds has been trashed by the Common Fisheries Policy.”
Veteran anti-Brussels Tory MP Sir William Cash, chairman of the Commons European Scrutiny Committee, said the move would enable the British people “to regain their birthright to govern themselves, for which people fought and died over generations”.
Jacob Rees-Mogg compared the Prime Minister to Queen Elizabeth I, evoking the former monarch’s “Gloriana” title.
He told Mrs May: “Does she recall the words of Francis Drake?
“There must be a beginning of any great matter, but the continuing unto the end until it be thoroughly finished yields the true glory.
“May I wish her good luck and good fortune in her negotiations, until she comes to true glory and is welcomed back to this House as a 21st century Gloriana.”
Wellingborough Tory MP Peter Bone said: “Some members on both sides of this House have been working all their political career to extract the United Kingdom from the European super state.
“Sometimes we were isolated, sometimes we were ignored, and sometimes we were insulted. “But thanks to the British people, today we’re leaving the European Union.”
Mrs May answered questions from 113 MPs yesterday.
Because she answered Prime Minister’s Questions immediately before her statement, she was at the Commons Dispatch Box for a total of three hours 21 minutes, the longest spell for any premier in living memory.
EU Exit Secretary David Davis will today press ahead with the exit process by unveiling the Government’s plans for a “Great Reform Bill” to sweep away Brussels rule.
The proposed legislation will lay the ground for converting EU rules and regulations into UK law the moment the country leaves the EU.
Parliament will then be able to debate which laws inherited from Brussels should be scrapped and which should be kept.
Ahead of the unveiling of a White Paper Government proposal document, long-standing Brexit campaigner Mr Davis said: “At the heart of the referendum decision was sovereignty.
“A strong, independent country needs control of its own laws. That process starts now. Converting EU law into UK law, and ending the supremacy of lawmakers in Brussels, is an important step in giving businesses, workers and consumers the certainty they need.
“And it will mean that as we seek a comprehensive new economic partnership with the EU, our allies will know that we start from a position where we have the same standards and rules.”
The Great Repeal Bill will also give ministers special powers to amend up to 1,000 regulations to ensure they are compatible with UK law.
Sterling was up 0.1 per cent against the euro at 1.153 by the late afternoon. The FTSE 100 ended the day higher by 0.4 per cent at 7,373.72.
March 30th, 2017: Express