In it May says that it is in the best interests of the UK and EU that negotiations to leave should proceed in “a fair and orderly manner and with as little disruption as possible on each side”.
“We want to make sure that Europe remains strong and prosperous and is capable of projecting its values, leading in the world and defending itself from security threats.
“We want the UK, through a new deep and special partnership with a strong European Union, to play its full part in achieving these goals.”
As the letter was delivered, May stood up in the House of Commons to deliver her statement on what she described as “an historic moment from which there can be no turning back”.
She called on British citizens to work together. “We are one great union of people and nations with a proud history and a bright future,” she said.
“And now that the decision to leave has been made – and the process is underway – it is time to come together. For this great national moment needs a great national effort, an effort to shape a stronger future for Britain.”
May’s proposal for a “new deep and special partnership” chimed with the views of London Mayor Sadiq Khan who visited the European Parliament yesterday.
“Even though we may leave the European Union,” he told parliament president Antonio Tajani, “we are not leaving Europe.
“For issues of security and defence to finance and culture, we are still going to be part of the European family.”
The business community reacted to the news in a subdued way although there was relief all round that the process of leaving was underway.
If anything, fears for the UK’s economy dominated the major business organisations’ statements today. They were worried about article 50’s impact and concerned that the government should not focus on the Brexit negotiations to the exclusion of everything else, in particular the economy.
As ICAEW chief executive Michael Izza pointed out in his blog today, the negotiations will be hugely complex, time limited and likely to dominate the political, economic and trade landscapes.
The economic momentum built up in the UK in recent years is already starting to slow, he warned, with businesses approaching decisions on their long-term future in a much more cautious manner, whether they be related to capital investment, research and development or staffing levels.
“No country can afford to be distracted by the negotiation process or to take its eye off the economic ball. Nor can we put off decisions that will undermine or hinder the economic progress made in recent years.”
British Chambers of Commerce director general Adam Marshall agreed. “It is crucial for the prime minister and her government to remember Brexit is not the only thing on the minds of UK businesses. Issues here at home, from the training system to sky-high business rates and up-front costs, still need to be addressed.
“Businesses would not look kindly on a government that treats Brexit as its only job. Getting the fundamentals right here in the UK is as important, if not more important, than any eventual Brexit deal.”
In its response to the prime minister's letter, the European Council said it regretted the UK’s decision to leave but would approach the talks “constructively” and try to find an agreement.
In the future, the statement added, the council hoped to have the UK as “a close partner”.
A White Paper will be published tomorrow (30 March) which May said would confirm the government’s plans to convert the “acquis” (all the accumulated EU legislation, regulations, rights, obligations and court decisions) into British law.