“After nine months the UK has delivered,” declared EU Council President Donald Tusk in a portentous tweet on receipt of the letter triggering Brexit from Prime Minister Theresa May.
The tone of his speech in Brussels was full of regret. There was “no reason to pretend that this is a happy day” in Brussels or London, he added. “We already miss you.”
Looking on the bright side, he said there was “also something positive” about Brexit as it had made the 27 states remaining in the EU more determined and united than before.
That mood of regret tinged with defiance was echoed by a tweet from European Parliament President Antonio Tajani: “Today isn’t a good day. #Brexit marks a new chapter in our Union’s history, but we’re ready, we’ll move on, hoping UK remains close partner.”
In Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel’s spokeswoman said the letter gave “more clarity” on how the UK planned to proceed.
“We must not forget that the UK is still a partner, in Nato and in Europe,” she said.
A more bitter response came from another leading German politician, Manfred Weber, chair of the centre-right EPP Group in the European Parliament.
Pointing the finger at British politicians who had campaigned for Brexit, he complained that they had had the chance to grow up in a free Europe but now they were erecting walls.
“EU has done everything to keep the British. From now on, only the interests of the remaining 440 million Europeans count for us,” he tweeted.
French far-right MP Marion Maréchal-Le Pen had nothing but praise for the British move: “The British people have rediscovered their liberty,” she tweeted, adding that her party, the National Front, would offer France its own go at independence.
Future for citizens
Austria’s government was more concerned with clarifying the status of EU citizens and establishing the legal certainty of Austrian companies in Britain.
“For me, the status and rights of around 25,000 Austrians living and working in the UK are at the forefront,” Chancellor Christian Kern said.
The EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, the French diplomat Michel Barnier, tweeted that his team was “ready”.
‘Divorce hurts’ – European press reaction, by BBC Monitoring
There was little optimism on show in Europe’s newspapers as Brexit loomed.
“Divorce hurts,” warned Germany’s centre-right Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung over a photograph of Winston Churchill’s brooding statue in Parliament Square.
Its economics correspondent Ralph Bollman warned that the loss to the EU of its third largest economy would “also weaken Germany’s voice in the world”. Overall, he believed a “highly-indebted Britain has the most to lose from uncertainty over a friendly deal with Brussels”.
The headline for France’s centre-left Le Monde was “The consequences of the break”. While Theresa May started from a position of strength because of “the decay” of the opposition Labour Party, the UK faced “complex negotiations over expatriates, access to the single market, and control of borders”.
Italy’s Corriere della Sera said “Brexit is under way, but without walls”: negotiations would set “no predetermined ceilings for EU migration, but rather decisions sector by sector”.
For the London correspondent of Poland’s Gazeta Wyborcza this was the start of a “journey into the unknown”. Its focus was on the fate of Polish workers in the UK. Even its account of a possible second referendum on Scottish independence was headed with the question: “What does this mean for Polish immigrants?”