Britain will formally begin the process of leaving the European Union by next March and complete "Brexit" by 2019, Prime Minister Theresa May said Sunday.
May told the BBC she will present a "Great Repeal Bill" to remove the European Communities Act of 1972, making the UK an "independent, sovereign nation."
May, interviewed ahead of a Brexit speech at a Conservative conference, said her bill will adopt all existing EU laws into British law. Parliament then will decide which EU laws would be dropped or changed. May provided few insights on her vision for the delicate negotiations that lie ahead as the new relationship is forged.
Brexit was triggered by a stunning referendum on June 23, when Britons voted 52% to 48% to leave the EU bloc, which includes 27 other nations. Prime Minister David Cameron, who had campaigned to remain in the EU, resigned the next day, setting off a scramble for leadership of the ruling Conservative Party.
May, who was Cameron's Home Secretary, sought to replace Cameron by touting her experience and promising to abide by the will of the people. She emerged victorious even though she had opposed an EU departure after Brexit supporters failed to unify behind one candidate. May quickly made clear she would carry out a Brexit, naming former London mayor and Brexit leader Boris Johnson as foreign secretary.
She told the BBC on Sunday that she realized an influx of immigrants was perhaps the key issue that led to Brexit. The EU sets immigration rules — as well as other social and economic policies — for members, a power that has provoked a backlash in many European countries in addition to the U.K.
"When the vote took place, apart from the message of leaving the EU, there was also a clear message from the British people that they wanted us to control movement of people from the EU coming into the UK, so we will deliver on that," she said.
When Britain formally triggers Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, a two-year clock starts for completion of Britain's exit from the political and economic bloc. The process can be extended if all parties agree.
Some EU leaders have suggested that Britain faces an all-or-nothing decision on Brexit — that the U.K. can't curb the influx of EU residents and refugees from the Middle East and Africa and still expect the free-trade privileges that come with EU membership. A key argument of those who campaigned to remain in the EU was that a Brexit would harm Britain's economy.
"It will be a choice facing the UK," French President Francois Hollande said in July. "Remain in the single market and then assume the free movement that goes with it... There cannot be freedom of movement of goods, free movement of capital, free movement of services if there isn't a free movement of people."
May, however, refused to link immigration to free trade, indicating that difficult negotiations are ahead.
"The way I look at it is we want to negotiate the right deal for the British people when we leave the EU. That (includes) negotiation on goods and services," she said. "I say let's actually sit down and say 'What will be right for the UK?' Let's go out and get it."