Brexit has finally happened. After the 2016 referendum, followed by three prime ministers (David Cameron, Theresa May and now Boris Johnson), plus two general elections – Britain has finally and legally left the European Union.
The historic end to almost 50 years of EU membership was greeted with both joy and sadness in the UK. Thousands of people waving Union Jack flags packed Parliament Square in London, singing the national anthem to mark the moment of Brexit at 11pm London time on Friday – midnight in Brussels.
Prime Minister Johnson – a key figure in addition to Nigel Farage in the 2016 referendum vote for Brexit – hosted a small, private party at Downing Street, the walls outside lit up in the colours of the Union Jack flag. At 11pm, a Big Ben clock was projected on the building to ‘bong’ 11 times to mark the historic occasion.
Johnson had earlier hosted a special cabinet meeting in the UK’s northeastern city of Sunderland – the first to declare its results for Brexit in the 2016 referendum. Millions of commemorative 50 pence coins have also been issued.
Many pro-Europeans, meanwhile, including many of the 3.6m EU citizens who live in the UK, marked the occasion with solemn candlelit vigils.
In an address pre-recorded and televised to the nation, Johnson hailed a ‘new era of friendly cooperation’ with the EU whilst Britain aims to take a greater role on the world stage.
‘This is the moment when the dawn breaks and the curtain goes up on a new act in our great national drama,’ he said.
He acknowledged there might be ‘bumps in the road ahead’, but predicted the country could make it a ‘stunning success’.
‘The most important thing to say tonight is that this is not an end but a beginning,’ said Johnson.
[Click on the Twitter link below to view his entire address.]
Tonight we are leaving the European Union. pic.twitter.com/zZBsrf4BLe
— Boris Johnson (@BorisJohnson) January 31, 2020
Brexit has exposed deep divisions in British society, however, and many still fear the consequences of ending nearly 50 years of ties with the EU bloc. Citizens remain as divided as they were four years ago, when 52% voted to leave and 48% voted to remain in the EU.
It unleashed political chaos, provoking years of vicious arguments that paralysed the British parliament and forced the resignations of both David Cameron and Theresa May.
Johnson finally brought an end to the turmoil in a decisive election victory in December, giving him the parliamentary majority he needed to ratify his Brexit deal.
In Scotland, however, where a majority voted to stay in 2016, Brexit has now also revived calls for independence.
First Minister Nicola Sturgeon tweeted on Friday evening: ‘Scotland will return to the heart of Europe as an independent country – #LeaveALightOnForScotland
In Northern Ireland – soon to be the new EU frontier – there are fears Brexit could destabilise a hard-won peace after decades of conflict over British rule.
Brexit has also provoked soul-searching across the Europe Union about its own future. French President Emmanuel Macron described it as a ‘historic warning sign’ that should force the EU and its remaining nations of more than 440m people to stop and reflect.
Before 11pm on Friday, EU institutions began removing Britain’s red, white and blue flags in Brussels ahead of the divorce that German Chancellor Angela Merkel called a ‘sea-change’ for the bloc.
From Saturday, Britain began its uncertain future outside the EU. Nothing will change immediately, because of an 11-month transition period negotiated as part of the exit deal.
Britons will be able to work in and trade freely with EU nations until 31 December, and vice versa, although the UK will no longer be represented in the bloc’s institutions.
Whilst the divorce terms have been agreed, Britain must still strike a deal on future relations with the EU, its largest trading partner. Both are expected to set out their negotiating positions from this coming Monday.
Britain is now free to strike trade deals around the world, including with the United States.
Boris Johnson has given himself just 11 months to negotiate a new partnership with the EU, covering everything from trade to security cooperation – despite warnings this is not enough time.