LONDON (AFP) – Brexit becomes a reality yesterday as Britain leaves Europe’s customs union and single market, ending nearly half a century of often turbulent ties with its closest neighbours.
The United Kingdom’s (UK) tortuous departure from the European Union (EU) takes full effect when Big Ben strikes 11 (2300 GMT) in central London, just as most of the European mainland ushers in 2021 at midnight.
Brexit has dominated British politics since the country’s narrow vote to leave the bloc in June 2016, opening deep political and social wounds which remain raw.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson, a key Brexit architect, said yesterday that Britain’s destiny “now resides firmly in our hands”, shortly after MPs approved his trade deal with the EU.
Legally, Britain left 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.
Once the transition ends, EU rules will no longer apply, with the immediate consequence being an end to the free movement of more than 500 million people between Britain and the 27 EU states.
Customs border checks will be back for the first time in decades, and despite the free-trade deal, queues and disruption from additional paperwork are expected. 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 EU has lost 66 million people and an economy worth USD2.85 trillion, but Brexit, with its appeal to nationalist populism, also triggered fears other disgruntled members could follow suit.
Leaders in both London and Brussels signalled their wish to draw a line. “It’s been a long road.
It’s time now to put Brexit behind us. Our future is made in Europe,” European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said as she signed the trade pact. Johnson said that yesterday heralded “a new beginning in our country’s history and a new relationship with the EU as their biggest ally”.
Unlike in January, when flag-waving Brexiteers cheered and pro-EU “remainers” mourned, no formal events are planned for the end of the transition.
Public gatherings are banned due to the coronavirus outbreak, which has claimed more than 72,000 lives and infected more than 2.4 million in Britain.
But the historic moment pushed Britain’s grim virus struggles from top billing in Brexit supporting newspapers, with the Daily Mail calling it a “new dawn”, while the Daily Express looked forward to 11pm as the country’s “finest hour”.