European leaders have reacted to the long-anticipated speech by British Prime Minister Theresa May defining what Brexit means.

European leaders welcomed the UK's clearer position on renouncing membership of the single market. Opting for a so-called "hard Brexit", May announced that Britain will try to obtain as much access to free trade with the 27-countries bloc in a new deal. "Whether that means we must reach a completely new customs agreement, become an associate member of the Customs Union in some way, or remain a signatory to some elements of it, I hold no preconceived position," she said.

May has now paved the way to trigger Article 50 by the end of March, formalising the UK's intention to leave the EU within two years, and start negotiating a new relationship.

Reacting to the speech, European Council President Donald Tusk wrote on Twitter: "Sad process, surrealistic [sic] times, but at least more realistic announcement on Brexit. EU27 united and ready to negotiate after article 50."

Czech Secretary of State for European Affairs Tomas Prouza called May's plans "ambitious". He tweeted: "Thorough speech by Theresa May. At least now we know what UK wants #HardBrexit. UK's plan seems a bit ambitious – trade as free as possible, full control on immigration... where is the give for all the take?"

Also in line with Tusk's message, Finnish finance minister Petteri Orpo remarked on the importance of the remaining 27 EU member states to present a united front in the upcoming negotiations with the UK. "Britain has laid out its plan for Brexit. Next, it is the job of EU27 to find a common position. United we stand, divided we fall," he wrote on Twitter.

The German foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier focused instead on what the UK and the EU have in common. "[May] has finally created a little more clarity about the British plans. She has underlined that Great Britain is striving for a positive and constructive partnership, a friendship, with a strong EU. That is good," the German minister stated.

"We too want the best, closest and most trusting relationship and wish for constructive negotiations with this goal. But our line is, and remains: the negotiations can begin only when Great Britain has given official notification of its desire to leave."

Jack Taylor
20 October 2016: Theresa May kisses President of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker during a group photo at her first EU Council meeting as the British prime minister Jack Taylor/Getty Images

The Irish government, which stands to lose its biggest trade partner with the UK exit from the single market, stated that it is aware of both challenges and opportunities the Brexit scenario presents for the Irish economy.

"The government notes that the British approach is now firmly that of a country which will have left the EU but which seeks to negotiate a new, close relationship with it. While this will inevitably be seen by many as a 'hard exit', the analysis across government has covered all possible models for the future UK relationship with the EU," the Irish statement read.

A spokesperson for President of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker told the press in Strasbourg that Juncker was briefed about May's speech, but, he said, there will only be a reaction to "specific UK positions and requests only once the article 50 is triggered".

The Juncker-appointed chief Brexit negotiator for the EU, Michel Barnier, also mentioned the need to trigger Article 50 before any negotiations can take place. "Ready as soon as UK is. Only notification can kick off negotiations," he wrote on Twitter. "Agreement on orderly exit is prerequisite for future partnership. My priority is to get the right deal for EU27," he added.