U.K. Prime Minister Formally Triggers Brexit

Credit: Getty / Jack Taylor
Theresa May

Britain and the EU will now have two years to untangle decades of legislation, impacting everything from trade and immigration to co-productions and citzenship rights.

British Prime Minister Theresa May has triggered the Brexit process, formally telling European Union leaders that the U.K. plans to leave the EU.

The move starts two years of negotiations about the formalities around the EU departure that would end with Brexit in 2019.

A letter signed by the prime minister was hand-delivered to the president of the European council, Donald Tusk, on Wednesday, timed to coincide with May's address to the British Parliament signaling the end of the U.K.'s decades-old association with the European Union. 

Now the hard work begins, as negotiators in Britain and the EU wrangle over everything from citizens' rights, immigration and the U.K.'s future access to the European common market.

For the British and European film industry, the outcome of these talks will determine whether British filmmakers will still have access to EU subsidies — veteran director Ken Loach, enjoying a late-career revival with his sleeper hit I, Daniel Blake, has long use EU funds to finance his films — and the future of co-production treaties between Britain and the EU.

"At the moment, we have no plans in place. There is incredible uncertainty," said German producer Marco Mehlitz, who set up David Cronenberg's A Dangerous Method, starring Keira Knightley and Viggo Mortensen, as a British-German-Swiss-U.S.-Canadian co-production. "Projects that could happen won't because people aren't certain what the rules will be."

The first issue to be placed on the negotiating table is likely to be the status of EU citizens living in the U.K. and British nationals living on the continent, something that will be of major significance for the film industry, which currently relies on the easy movement of talent across EU borders. Some have suggested that Prime Minister May could set a cutoff date, perhaps retroactively to March 29, 2017, for when EU citizens living in Britain will have their rights protected. Members of the European parliament, however, have threatened to veto any Brexit deal that prevents EU citizens who move to the U.K. in the next two years, before Brexit negotiations are finalized, from having their rights protected.

Britain's House of Lords recently voted to amend a Brexit bill to force May's government to guarantee the rights of EU citizens living in the U.K. The prime minister was confident the amendment would be rejected by the House of Commons, which did so in recent days.

The parliament had to vote on Brexit after the U.K. Supreme Court confirmed a high court decision that the government can't trigger negotiations to leave the EU without a vote from the parliament. The early November high court ruling was seen as a blow to May.

May's plans for Brexit have been complicated by the Scottish Parliament, which this week voted to approve a plan to hold a second referendum on independence from the United Kingdom. Scots voted to stay in the U.K. in the first independence vote, in 2014, but the ruling Scottish National Party said it could pursue a second referendum if the Scottish electorate were to be "forced out of the European Union against their will."

In last year's Brexit decision, Scotland voted overwhelmingly to stay in the EU. Scottish leader Nicola Sturgeon is due to write Prime Minister May this week to request approval to hold a second referendum. May's government has said it will not discuss Scottish independence until after Brexit negotiations are complete in 2019.

Overall, 51.8 percent of U.K. voters chose Brexit in the June 2016 EU referendum. Results differed across the various parts of the U.K.. In addition to Scotland, voters in London and in Northern Ireland voted to remain in the EU while northern and rural England, together with Wales, supported Brexit.

Worries about Britain's future links to the common EU market has lead some financial companies in London to consider moving their European headquarters to Frankfurt or other EU cities following the Brexit.

The referendum in favor of Brexit led to a decline in the value of the British pound —though the currency has since stabilized at a lower level. The pound took a slight dip ahead of Wednesday's announcement, falling to its lowest level in a week against the dollar. The drop has been a boon to Britain's film services industry, with Hollywood productions pouring in to take advantage or the stronger U.S. greenback.

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