The UK’s permanent representative to the European Union, Sir Tim Barrow, notified the EU on Monday morning that a letter should be expected on that date. The move will put the UK on course to leave the EU on the same date in 2019.
May, who was visiting Wales on Monday, intended to visit Northern Ireland and Scotland before the formal notification was sent by letter, Downing Street said.
Speaking during her visit to Swansea after the date was announced, May said: “I am very clear that I want to ensure we get the best possible deal for the United Kingdom that works for everyone across the United Kingdom and all parts of the UK when we enter these negotiations.
“I have set out my objectives. These include getting a good free trade deal. They include putting issues like continuing working together on issues like security at the core of what we are doing. We are going to be out there, negotiating hard, delivering on what the British people voted for.”
May has repeatedly pledged she would take the action to start the Brexit process “by the end of March”.
Earlier rumours that the move would be made last week were quashed by sources close to the prime minister after Nicola Sturgeon declared her desire for a second Scottish independence referendum, leading to speculation that May did not wish to appear cavalier about the future of the union.
But EU sources said May had missed her chance of a swift start to the negotiations, and the EU27 would now keep her waiting for up to six weeks before offering their formal response to her letter triggering article 50.
The EU had hoped to offer a substantive political response to Britain at a summit pencilled in for 6-7 April, but the notification date announced by No 10 does not now make that possible, EU sources said.
Formal EU-UK negotiations are unlikely to start until mid-May at the very earliest, while some diplomats representing member states in Brussels believe it is more likely talks will start in earnest in June.
Speaking to the Guardian, Gianni Pitella, the president of the socialist bloc in the European parliament, mocked May’s slow progress in triggering talks, and said the EU would also be demanding agreement on Britain’s estimated £57bn divorce bill before trade talks could start.
He said: “Congratulations, Theresa May. Nine months to give birth on a date for article 50 notification. We will make sure that Brexit won’t affect EU and UK acquired citizens’ rights. Before negotiating the new relationship with UK, first and foremost we want substantial progresses on the withdrawal agreement to be ensured.”
The European council president, Donald Tusk, who represents the member states, tweeted shortly afterwards that he would present the remaining 27 EU members with a draft response to the British government, known as the guidelines, within 48 hours of receiving May’s letter.
However a senior EU source said it would then take between four and six weeks before the member states were able to agree by consensus on Tusk’s proposed response.
The European council and member states are yet to decide whether they will even publish the draft guidelines to May’s letter, it is understood.
Earlier, the Brexit secretary, David Davis, confirmed article 50 would be triggered next week, calling the process “the most important negotiation for this country in a generation”.
“The government is clear in its aims: a deal that works for every nation and region of the UK and indeed for all of Europe – a new, positive partnership between the UK and our friends and allies in the European Union.”
The prime minister’s spokesman said Barrow had had a conversation with the office of the European council president, Donald Tusk, earlier on Monday to give the EU notice of the date.
“There will be a letter, [May] will notify President Tusk in writing, and the prime minister has already confirmed she will give a statement to parliament as well,” he said. “More details will be given in due course.”
The spokesman said the warning was a matter of courtesy not formal procedure. “It’s simply a case of providing advance notice to help people on all sides,” he said. “We have always said we would trigger article 50 by the end of March and we thought it would be helpful to give advance notice.”
Downing Street said after the formal trigger, the UK expected that the remaining 27 EU members would meet to agree their guidelines for the negotiations and the European commission’s negotiating mandate.
Tusk’s formal response was expected within 48 hours, the spokesman said, which was confirmed by the president on Twitter.
“We want negotiations to start promptly, but it’s obviously right that the 27 have the opportunity to agree their position,” the spokesman said. “We fully expect they will want to do that in advance.”
No 10 said there were no plans for an early general election to take place after the triggering of article 50.
Reports had suggested ministers were considering whether to hold a snap election at the same time as local council and mayoral elections on 4 May, in the early stages of the Brexit negotiations when little progress was likely to have been made given the timings of the French elections.
“It’s not going to happen, there is a Fixed-Term Parliament Act, the prime minister is getting on with delivering the will of the British people,” he said. “There is not going to be an early general election.”
The Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, said his party accepted the prime minister had a mandate to start the process of leaving the EU. “Labour respects the will of the people, but the government has failed to build a consensus about what form Brexit should take,” he said.
The Liberal Democrat leader, Tim Farron, said May had “rushed this through without a plan, and without a clue” in the midst of a tour of the UK nations intended to promote unity.
“On the day Theresa May is travelling the country claiming she wants to bring the United Kingdom together, she lets it be known she is about to unleash division and bitterness,” he said. “You can’t have a rushed Brexit and a strong, united country.”
In Brussels, the Belgian prime minister, Charles Michel, welcomed the clarity on the date, saying it was in everyone’s interest.
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