The United Kingdom leaves the European Union on Friday for an uncertain Brexit future, the most significant change to its place in the world since the loss of empire and a blow to 70 years of efforts to forge European unity from the ruins of war.
The country will slip away an hour before midnight local time (6 p.m. ET) from the club it joined in 1973, moving into the no man’s land of a transition period that preserves membership in all but name until the end of this year.
At a stroke, the EU will be deprived of 15 per cent of its economy, its biggest military spender and the world’s international financial capital of London. The divorce will shape the fate of the U.K. — and determine its wealth — for generations to come.
U.K. Prime Minster Boris Johnson said in a statement that the job of the government post-Brexit is “to bring this country together and take us forward.”
“And the most important thing to say tonight is that this is not an end but a beginning. This is the moment when the dawn breaks and the curtain goes up on a new act. It is a moment of real national renewal and change.”
Beyond the symbolism of turning its back on 47 years of membership, little will actually change until the end of 2020, by which time Johnson has promised to strike a broad free trade agreement with the EU, the world’s biggest trading bloc.
For proponents, Brexit is a dream “independence day” for the U.K. escaping what they cast as a doomed German-dominated project that is failing its 500 million population.
Opponents believe Brexit is a folly that will weaken the West, torpedo what is left of the U.K. global clout, undermine its economy and ultimately lead to a more insular and less cosmopolitan set of islands in the northern Atlantic.
Joy, sadness and resignation
Reactions on Friday from leaders in the U.K., and from around the world was a mixture of joy, resolve, sadness and resignation.
Jeremy Corbyn, opposition Labour leader, said the U.K.’s place in the world will change and the question is what direction the country will take.
“We can build a truly internationalist, diverse and outward-looking Britain. Or we can turn inwards, and trade our principles, rights and standards to secure hastily arranged, one-sided, race-to-the-bottom trade deals with Donald Trump and others.”
Across the border with Ireland, Foreign Minister Simon Coveny said, that from an Irish perspective, today “is a sad day.”
Under the UK’s withdrawal agreement with the EU, the British-ruled Northern Ireland will remain aligned with EU rules to avoid a hard border with EU member Ireland. There are fears that a hard border between the two countries could undermine a 1998 peace deal.
“Of course we accept and respect the decision of the U.K. to leave, but our view remains unchanged: We believe that this has been a lose-lose-lose for everybody.”
Meanwhile, a group of Brexit Party members of the European Parliament left the bloc’s Brussels assembly triumphantly on Friday, cheering and holding Union Jack flags as a kilted Scottish bagpiper played.
Brexit supporters in London’s Parliament Square celebrated their victory three and a half years after the referendum in which Britons voted by 52 per cent to 48 to leave the EU.
“Today we celebrate the beginning of our independence,” Ann Widdecombe told onlookers.
London’s mayor is ‘heartbroken’
While Brexiteers celebrated, the mood was more sombre with London politicians, with the city’s mayor Sadiq Khan saying he is “heartbroken” about the nation’s imminent departure from the EU.
Khan reassured European citizens living in the U.K. capital they are valued friends and family members.
“I’m of the generation who has seen our European neighbours as friends and allies,” Khan told The Associated Press Friday.
“Previous generations looked upon them with suspicion,” the mayor said. “And the key thing I’m determined to make sure happens is, going forward, we will carry on as a city being open-minded, out-looking, pluralistic and welcoming to our EU friends”
Brexit Day will also be more muted across the English Channel.
A Union Jack in the building of the European Council in Brussels will be lowered at 7 p.m. local time and put away with the flags of non-EU countries.
The European Parliament plans to place one of its British flags in the House of European History, a nearby museum that recounts the history of Europe since 1789.
In a symbolic move, the EU’s blue flag has been taken down from the U.K.’s permanent representation in Brussels, which is close to the EU headquarters. The name plate outside the building will be replaced.
It will now be known as the U.K. Mission to the European Union, which some have already dubbed “UKmissEU”
Brexit was always about much more than Europe.
The June 2016 Brexit referendum showed a divided United Kingdom and triggered soul-searching about everything from secession and immigration to empire and modern Britishness.
Such was the severity of the Brexit meltdown that allies and investors were left astonished by a country that was for decades touted as a confident pillar of Western political stability.
At home, Brexit has tested the bonds that bind together the United Kingdom: England and Wales voted to leave the bloc but Scotland and Northern Ireland voted to stay.
Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon will use the moment to spell out her next steps toward holding a second independence referendum, with a poll on Thursday suggesting a slim majority of Scots would back a split because of Brexit.
So on Brexit Day, some will celebrate and some will weep — but many Britons will do neither. Many are simply happy that more than three years of tortuous political wrangling over the divorce are over.
“I did not vote for it and I did not want it to happen, but now I just want it over,” said Judith Miller, a resident of London. “I am tired, I have had enough, I am sick of it on the news, and we are just going to have to deal with it.”
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