LONDON (AFP) — Britain on Thursday finally severed its turbulent half-century partnership with Europe, quitting the EU single market and customs union and going its own way four-and-a-half years after its shock vote to leave the bloc.
Brexit, which has dominated politics on both sides of the Channel since 2016, became a reality as Big Ben struck 11:00 p.m. in London, just as most of mainland Europe ushered in 2021.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson — the figurehead of the “Leave” campaign — described it as an “amazing moment” for the country and played up his upbeat narrative of a “Global Britain” unshackled from rules set in Brussels.
He vowed that post-Brexit Britain, despite being battered by a surge in coronavirus cases, would be an “open, generous, outward-looking, internationalist and free-trading” country.
“We have our freedom in our hands and it is up to us to make the most of it.”
There will be plenty who will be only too happy to say goodbye to the grimness of 2020.
But this was also the year when we rediscovered a spirit of togetherness, of community.
In 2021 we have our freedom in our hands and it is up to us to make the most of it. Happy New Year! pic.twitter.com/gDRXe2SuCb
— Boris Johnson (@BorisJohnson) December 31, 2020
Legally, Britain left the European Union on January 31 but has been in a standstill transition period during fractious talks to secure a free-trade agreement with Brussels, which was finally clinched on Christmas Eve.
Now the transition is over, EU rules no longer apply. The immediate consequence is an end to the free movement of more than 500 million people between Britain and the 27 EU states.
Customs border checks return for the first time in decades, and despite the free-trade deal, queues and disruption from additional paperwork are expected.
Matt Smith, managing director of HSF Logistics, which ships mainly fresh meat and chilled goods between Britain and Europe, said he was sending around 15 truckloads to the EU on New Year’s Eve ahead of the changes.
The government’s new post-Brexit customs systems are largely untested and Smith was doubtful how his business would fare with the new paperwork.
“We’re not too sure to be honest, it seems to be a bit of a headache,” he told AFP. “There’ll be delays along the line at some stage.”
Britain is the first member state to leave the EU, which was set up to forge unity after the horrors of World War II.
The 2016 referendum opened up abiding wounds between Leavers and Remainers, and ushered in years of political paralysis before Johnson took power last year, vowing to chart a future for Britain built on scientific innovation and new partnerships across the seas.
A parliamentary debate on Wednesday to ratify the trade deal was marked by elegiac farewells from pro-EU lawmakers, and warnings of disruption as Britain dismantles the intricate network of ties built since it joined the EU’s forerunner in 1973.
While the EU trade deal averted potential business chaos in the immediate future, the divorce will play out in many practical ways.
Changes apply to everything from pet passports, to how long Britons can visit their holiday homes on the continent and an end to British involvement in a student exchange program.
Potential disruption at ports is stoking fears of food and medicine shortages, as well as delays to holidaymakers and business travelers used to seamless travel in the EU.
British fishermen are disgruntled at a compromise to allow continued access for EU boats in British waters.
The key financial services sector also faces an anxious wait to learn on what basis it can keep dealing with Europe, after being largely omitted from the trade agreement.
In a landmark deal sealed just hours before 2300 GMT, the tiny British territory of Gibraltar will become part of Europe’s passport-free zone to keep movement fluid on its border with Spain.
Northern Ireland’s border with EU member state Ireland will be closely watched to ensure movement is unrestricted — a key plank of a 1998 peace deal that ended 30 years of violence over British rule.
And in pro-EU Scotland, where Brexit has given a boost to calls for a new vote on independence, Johnson faces a potential constitutional headache as 2021 dawns.
But opinion polls indicate that most Britons, on both sides of the referendum divide, want to move on and are far more worried about the worsening coronavirus pandemic, which has hit the country harder than most.
Johnson, who himself was among those who was struck down by the virus, warned of tough times ahead because of a resurgence of Covid-19 infections but said a UK-developed vaccine offered grounds for hope.
“It’s going to be better,” said Maureen Martin, from the port of Dover that lies across the Channel from France. “We need 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 world’s richest economies.
The EU has now lost 66 million people and an economy worth $2.85 trillion, and there is regret that Britain wanted out.
French President Emmanuel Macron said Britain will remain “our friend and ally” but lamented that Brexit was the fruit of “a lot of lies and false promises.”
“No one has been able to show me the added value of Brexit,” added EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier. “It’s a divorce… you can’t celebrate a divorce.”
Boarding a Eurostar train in Paris as the Brexit hour approached, Francois Graffin, 59, said he was going to pack up his life in London and return to live in France.
“It breaks my heart,” he said.
In Britain, Brexit has been the culmination of years of anti-Brussels agitation as the union morphed from a trading community to a more ambitious political project.
However, the 2016 referendum never spelt out what shape Brexit should take.
Johnson’s predecessor Theresa May repeatedly failed to drive through a “soft” separation that would have kept Britain largely bound to the EU.
But he drove a much harder bargain, to the profound unease of UK businesses and opposition parties.
Now after months of stormy negotiations that were repeatedly upended by the pandemic, Brussels, too, is keen to move on.
But UK lawmaker Chris Hazzard, from the Irish republican Sinn Fein party, said Brexit was far from over.
“When all the bluster dies down… it will become depressingly clear that this trade deal is… the beginning of a new trading relationship built on permanent negotiation, disputes and recriminations,” he warned.
The Daily Telegraph, where Johnson made his name as a Brussels-bashing Europe correspondent, said the government faced a new reality shorn of the EU bogeyman.
“Politicians will have to get used to bearing much greater responsibilities than they have been used to while the UK has been in the EU,” it said.