So here we go. After nine months on the launch pad, Britain finally engaged the most famous ignition sequence in diplomatic history.
At 12.29 pm London time, the Prime Minister’s Article 50 letter was delivered in Brussels and the countdown began. After nine months of meticulous legal, technical and political preparation, the engines switched on and are today firing in an irreversible crescendo.
The negotiations are now underway, and when they are complete this country will have lift off – blast off – for an extraordinary voyage.
We are all going together on a mission to create new friendships, to rekindle old relationships, to search for new trading opportunities as this country was able to do for hundreds of years – and all the while preserving what is most advantageous, to both sides, in our longstanding partnership with Europe.
This is our country’s chance to rediscover its role as a truly global Britain. In taking this step, the Government is acting in keeping with Britain’s deepest instincts and history. Above all, we are acting in accordance with this country’s ancient tradition of parliamentary democracy – the fundamental belief that ordinary people should both be able to identify, and have the power to remove, those who make their laws.
It is in many ways a historic and – at least as I see it – a magnificent moment.
And yet in saying that, and in expressing my own enormous pride and excitement at what we are doing, I must accept that there are millions who do not feel the same way. All of us, whatever side we were on, will have friends or family who felt differently about the referendum.
I know that there will be huge numbers who still feel the vestiges of apprehension; and so I want to stress that if we are to make a success of these negotiations – as we assuredly can and must – then it is vital that we unite behind the PM in her approach, and above all that we are confident. We have every reason, in reality, to be brimming with confidence.
It is clear that it was wise of the PM to wait before triggering Article 50, because that has given us time to prepare the ground, especially with our EU friends and partners. We have spent the last nine months exhaustively explaining the first point the PM makes in her letter: that the UK does not seek to disrupt or undermine the EU, and that on the contrary we want to see it succeed and prosper.
We have a Churchillian vision of a strong and united EU buttressed by a strong UK. As the PM has said so many times, we may be leaving the EU, but we are not leaving Europe – and since the UK accounts for 16 per cent of EU GDP, 20 per cent of EU defence spending and 25 per cent of the EU’s aid budget, it is clearly important – for both sides – that the EU and the UK should have the closest possible alliance and understanding.
"What we are looking for is not a divorce, not a dissolution of the emotional and psychological bonds between Britain and our European friends"
It is our clear desire and intention that we should continue to play a role as one of the indispensable guarantors of peace and stability in our continent. We want to continue to work with our counterparts on defence cooperation, intelligence sharing, counter-terrorism, foreign policy coordination – and much else besides – on an intergovernmental level.
At the same time, the PM is right to spell out her vision of a Britain outside the single market – and outside the EU legal order – but able none the less to continue the trading relationship that is so important for businesses and consumers both sides of the Channel.
As I never tire of saying, we are massive net consumers of EU goods. It is manifestly in the interests of everyone in both the EU and the UK that we do a deal, just as it is in our mutual interests to look after both the EU nationals in the UK and the UK nationals in the rest of the EU.
What we are looking for is not a divorce, not a dissolution of the emotional and psychological bonds between Britain and our European friends, but a transition to a new relationship. The PM calls it a “deep and special partnership”, and I believe that concept should be overwhelmingly appealing to the vast majority of people both in this country and on the continent.
The world will be looking at all of us in Europe, and they will be judging how we handle these negotiations; it will be hugely in our interests as Europeans if we put aside any temptation towards recrimination and rancour, and develop our new partnership with speed, and energy and imagination.
It can be done. And then the UK will have what I believe will be the best of both worlds. We will still be friends and partners of the EU, trading more busily than ever, but we will also be able to take back control of our system of government and law-making. We will also take back control of our borders, and substantial sums of cash.
And we will take back control of our trade policy. At a time when growth of global trade has been slowing, this country can resume the role it once had – as the foremost agitator for free trade and its benefits, not just in Europe but around the world.
There is no other country on earth that has so many ties with the rest of the planet; no other large rich country that has so many of its people already living abroad. We have ties – not least with fast-growing Commonwealth countries – that are just waiting to be strengthened and developed.
The UK is already a leader in so many sectors where the potential markets are immense. Now is the time to believe in ourselves, to back Britain, and to do a deal that is good for Europe, for Britain and for the world.