The United Kingdom exits the European Union in a few hours, turning its back on a 48-year liaison with the European project for an uncertain future that will shape the fortunes of its people for generations to come.
Brexit, in essence, takes place at the stroke of midnight in Brussels, or 2300 London time (GMT), when the United Kingdom leaves de-facto membership that continued after it formally left the bloc on Jan. 31.
After more than four years of Brexit political drama, the day itself is something of an anticlimax. UK lockdown measures to curb the coronavirus have curtailed mass gatherings to celebrate or mourn the moment, though Parliament’s huge Big Ben bell will sound the hour as it prepares to ring in the New Year.
The Brexit crisis has dominated European affairs, haunted the sterling markets and tarnished the United Kingdom’s reputation as a confident pillar of Western economic and political stability.
Cast by supporters as the dawn of a newly independent “global Britain”, Brexit has weakened the bonds that bind together England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland into a $3 trillion economy.
“Brexit is not an end but a beginning,” Prime Minister Boris Johnson, 56, told parliament just hours before it approved his EU trade deal. Grinning, he later quipped to reporters that he had read the deal he had signed.
Johnson said there would be no bonfire of regulation to build a “bargain basement Dickensian Britain” and assured Europe that the United Kingdom would remain the “quintessential European civilization”.
But the face of the Brexit campaign has been short on detail of what he wants to build with the United Kingdom’s new “independence” – or how to do it while borrowing record amounts to pay for the COVID-19 crisis.
In the June 23, 2016 referendum, 17.4 million voters, or 52 percent, backed Brexit while 16.1 million, or 48 percent, backed staying in the bloc. Few have changed their minds since. England and Wales voted out but Scotland and Northern Ireland voted in.
The referendum showed a United Kingdom divided about much more than the European Union, and has fuelled soul-searching about everything from secession and immigration to capitalism, empire and modern Britishness.
A free trade agreement sealed on Christmas Eve after months of tense negotiations will ensure Britain and the 27-nation EU can continue to trade in goods without tariffs or quotas. That should help protect the 660 billion pounds ($894 billion) in annual trade between the two sides, and the hundreds of thousands of jobs that rely on it.
Hundreds of millions of individuals in Britain and the bloc also face changes to their daily lives. After Thursday, Britons and EU citizens lose the automatic right to live and work in the other’s territory. From now on they will have to follow immigration rules and obtain work visas. Tourists won’t need visas for short trips, but new headaches — from travel insurance to pet paperwork — still loom for Britons visiting the continent.
“We see a global future for ourselves,” said Johnson who won power in 2019 and, against the odds, clinched a Brexit divorce treaty and a trade deal, as well as the biggest Conservative majority since Margaret Thatcher, in the 2019 election.
For supporters, Brexit is an escape from a doomed German-dominated project that had fallen far behind the world’s leading powers of the United States and China.
Opponents say Brexit is a folly that will weaken the West, torpedo what is left of Britain’s global clout, undermine its economy and ultimately leave it a less cosmopolitan set of islands.
Many in Britain felt apprehension about a leap into the unknown that is taking place during a pandemic that has upended life around the world.
“I feel very sad that we’re leaving,” said Jen Pearcy-Edwards, a filmmaker in London. “I think that COVID has overshadowed everything that is going on. But I think the other thing that has happened is that people feel a bigger sense of community, and I think that makes it even sadder that we’re breaking up our community a bit, by leaving our neighbors in Europe.
“I’m hopeful that we find other ways to rebuild ties,” she said.
“All I can feel is a sense of relief – relief that it has happened, relief that we are out but its not joy because there are aspects of this (trade) deal that really are dreadful,” said Brexit campaigner Nigel Farage, who said he feared Scotland would try to break away.
After clinching a Christmas Eve trade deal to smooth out the worst disruption, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen quoted both William Shakespeare and T.S. Eliot.
“Parting is such sweet sorrow,” she said. “What we call the beginning is often the end. And to make an end is to make a beginning.”