Britain on Thursday finally broke off its tumultuous partnership with Europe for over half a century, left the EU single market and customs union, and went its own way to get out of the bloc four and a half years after its shock vote.
Brexit, which has dominated politics on both sides of the Channel since 2016, became a reality when Big Ben arrived in London at 11:00 p.m. (2300 GMT), as did most of mainland Europe in 2021.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson – the figurehead of the “Vacation” campaign – described it as an “amazing moment” for the country and played his optimistic account of a “global Britain” not bound by the rules set in Brussels.
He vowed that after Brexit, Britain would be an “open, generous, outward-looking, internationalist and freely tradable” country despite an increase in coronavirus cases.
“We have our freedom in our hands and it’s up to us to make the most of it.”
Legally speaking, the UK left the European Union on January 31, but was in transition during heated talks to reach a free trade agreement with Brussels, which was eventually concluded on Christmas Eve.
Now the transition is over, the EU rules no longer apply. The immediate consequence is an end to the free movement of more than 500 million people between Great Britain and the 27 EU countries.
Customs border controls are returning for the first time in decades, and despite the free trade agreement, queues and disruptions of additional paperwork are expected.
“A bit of a headache”
Matt Smith, managing director of HSF Logistics, which mainly ships fresh meat and chilled goods between the UK and Europe, said he had sent around 15 truckloads to the EU on New Years Eve before the changes.
The government’s new post-Brexit customs systems are largely untested, and Smith doubted how his business would fare with the new records.
“We’re not sure we’re being honest, it seems like a bit of a headache,” he told AFP. “At some point there will be delays.”
Britain is the first member state to leave the EU, which was created after the horrors of World War II, to forge unity.
The 2016 referendum opened permanent wounds between Leavers and Remainers and ushered in years of political paralysis before Johnson took power last year. He promised to plan a future for Britain based on scientific innovation and new partnerships across the seas.
A parliamentary debate on Wednesday to ratify the trade deal was marked by elegiac farewell parties by EU pro-legislators and warnings of disruption as Britain dismantled the complicated network of relationships that had been built since joining the forerunner of the EU in 1973.
Fish and finance
While the EU trade deal averts potential business chaos in the near future, the divorce will have an impact in many practical ways.
Changes will apply to everything from pet passes to how long they stay in their cottages on the continent to ending their UK participation in a student exchange program.
Possible disruptions in ports are fueling fears of food and medicine shortages and delays for vacationers and business travelers who are used to seamless travel within the EU.
British fishermen are angry about a compromise to keep EU boats in British waters.
The main financial services sector has to be excited to see on what basis it can continue to deal with Europe after it has been largely removed from the trade agreement.
In a milestone sealed a few hours before 2300 GMT, the tiny British territory of Gibraltar becomes part of Europe’s passport-free zone to keep movement flowing along the border with Spain.
Northern Ireland’s border with EU Member State Ireland is being closely monitored to ensure the movement remains unrestrained – a key element of a 1998 peace deal that ended 30 years of violence against British rule.
And in Scotland for the EU, where Brexit fueled calls for a new vote on independence, Johnson faces a potential constitutional headache at dawn of 2021.
However, opinion polls show that most Britons want to move on on either side of the referendum disparity and are far more concerned about the worsening coronavirus pandemic, which has hit the country harder than most.
Johnson, who himself was among those infected with the virus, warned of difficult times due to the recurrence of Covid-19 infections, but said a vaccine developed in the UK offers cause for hope.
“Be Our Own Bosses”
“It’s getting better,” said Maureen Martin from the port of Dover, across the Canal from France. “We have to govern ourselves and be our own bosses.”
Britain is a financial and diplomatic big hitter and a major NATO power with a permanent seat on the UN Security Council and in the G7 grouping of the richest economies in the world.
The EU has now lost 66 million people and a $ 2.85 trillion economy, and there are regrets that the UK wanted to get out.
French President Emmanuel Macron said Britain would remain “our friend and ally” but complained that Brexit was the fruit of “many lies and false promises”.
“Nobody was able to show me the added value of Brexit,” added EU negotiator Michel Barnier. “It’s a divorce … you can’t celebrate a divorce.”
Francois Graffin, 59, got on a Eurostar train in Paris as the Brexit hour drew near and said he would pack his life in London and return to France.
“It breaks my heart,” he said.
Can’t blame the EU
In the UK, Brexit was the culmination of years of anti-Brussels agitation as the union moved from a trading community to a more ambitious political project.
However, the 2016 referendum never set out what Brexit should look like.
Johnson’s predecessor Theresa May repeatedly failed to achieve a “soft” separation that would have largely tied Britain to the EU.
But he was doing a much tougher business, to the deep discomfort of British corporations and opposition parties.
Now, after months of tumultuous negotiations repeatedly troubled by the pandemic, Brussels too is keen to move on.
However, British lawmaker Chris Hazzard of Irish Republican party Sinn Fein said Brexit is far from over.
“When all the noise subsides … it becomes oppressively clear that this trade deal … is the beginning of a new trade relationship based on constant negotiation, disputes and accusations,” he warned.
The Daily Telegraph, in which Johnson has made a name for himself as a Brussels Europe correspondent, said the government was facing a new reality that was beyond the EU bogeyman.
“Politicians have to get used to taking on a lot more responsibility than they were used to when Britain was in the EU,” it said.
(Except for the headline, this story was not edited by GossipMantri staff and posted from a syndicated feed.)