Britain, EU to negotiate terms of what could be an expensive, acrimonious divorce

LONDON -- There was a gray, threatening dawn over London Wednesday, and a gray -- many say threatening -- future for Britain. 

Nine months after voting for it, the British handed the EU its official demand for divorce

“This is an historic moment from which there can be no turning back,” said British Prime Minister Theresa May.

May’s government and the EU now have two years to negotiate the terms of the divorce -- a negotiation EU Council President Donald Tusk said would not lead to a win-win outcome, but to lose-lose. 

“This is about damage control,” Tusk said. 

A lot of people are already trying to control the damage. At Azimo, a currency trading company, they’re planning to move part of their operation to Ireland to stay in the EU trade zone that Brexit will almost certainly take Britain out of.

CEO Michael Kent says not just the little guys are hedging their bets.

“There’s not a single fintech or financial service company that isn’t considering these options right now,” Kent said. “Every single entrepreneur that I talk to, every single board member, every single banker I talk to is thinking about this.” 

Those who campaigned for Britain to leave the EU promised an economic windfall.

Boris Johnson is now foreign secretary.

“We had a whole Johnson Christmas, family Christmas, where the subject was outlawed. That’s how we got through to Boxing Day, I can tell you that now,” said Johnson’s sister Rachel, a newspaper columnist who argued to stay in Europe. 

“We have to do this thing now!!” Rachel Johnson said. “It’s completely crazy!! It’s crazy beyond your wildest nightmares. But it’s happening.”

There are already signs this will be an expensive divorce and an acrimonious one. If you want to leave, the EU is saying, take your share of the family debt with you. 

The settlement bill for Britain? About $60 billion.

Two years of argument lie ahead. And there’s no guarantee of a deal.

  • Mark Phillips

    Mark Phillips is CBS News senior foreign correspondent, based in London.