Britain moves on wearily to its momentous new chapter

Britain’s membership of the EU, dating back almost half a century, ended not with a bong — the clock of Big Ben is undergoing renovation — but with a whimper, as the country moved on wearily to a momentous new chapter in its history.

Under graphite-grey skies, Brexit supporters gathered in Parliament Square in central London to celebrate with Union flags the day when Britain once again became a “sovereign country”, unshackled from the bonds of Brussels.

But elsewhere, there was a muted atmosphere as the clock ticked down to 11pm on Friday, the point of departure.

Many Brexiters respected the sorrow of their fellow citizens who voted Remain in the 2016 EU referendum.

Steve Baker, leader of the pro-Brexit European Research Group of Conservative MPs, set the tone this week when he told colleagues: “I will celebrate. I will allow myself a smile, I’ll allow myself that glass of champagne, I will enjoy myself.

“But I’ll celebrate discreetly, and I will celebrate in a way which is respectful of the genuine sorrow that others are feeling at the same time.”

Boris Johnson held a low-key drinks party in Number 10, serving sparking English wine alongside roast beef, Shropshire blue cheese and a ploughman’s lunch — a menu harking back to an era before Britain’s taste buds formed a culinary union with the rest of Europe.

Buildings in Whitehall were illuminated, but Downing Street officials said the party would end and the lights turned out shortly after Brexit was complete.

Following the sturm und drang of the past three years, Britain quietly left the EU and politely shut the door behind it.

During Brexit day itself Mr Johnson led his cabinet to Sunderland, which was the first city to vote to leave the EU when the results of the Brexit referendum came in.

Sunderland is also the location chosen by Nissan in the 1980s for a plant that makes cars for the vast EU single market, taking advantage of the frictionless border between Britain and the rest of the bloc.

But Mr Johnson’s spokesman acknowledged the “processes” that companies like Nissan — with complex supply chains spanning Europe — will face at the future UK-EU border, if the prime minister secures his long-promised “Canada-style trade deal” with the bloc.

With much uncertainty still ahead, Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, told the BBC that the UK “must be united in a common vision for our country, however great our differences on achieving it”.

But Brexit Party leader Nigel Farage was less conciliatory. “At last the day comes when we break free,” he said. “A massive victory for the people against the establishment.”

EU Council staff members remove the United Kingdom's flag from the European Council building in Brussels on Brexit Day, January 31, 2020. - Britain leaves the European Union at 2300 GMT on January 31, 2020, 43 months after the country voted in a June 2016 referendum to leave the block. The withdrawal from the union ends more than four decades of economic, political and legal integration with its closest neighbours. (Photo by OLIVIER HOSLET / POOL / AFP) (Photo by OLIVIER HOSLET/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)
The Union Jack is taken down from outside the European Council building in Brussels on Friday © POOL/AFP via Getty Images

In Brussels the UK’s EU membership petered out over the course of a damp afternoon, marked by an acute awareness inside the bloc’s hulking institutions of how different life is going to be without the British.

Staff at the Council of the EU, the powerful body that brings together national governments, were warned in a stern email by administration chiefs to make sure British diplomats were cut off from the bloc’s business.

The message urged staff to “be very vigilant about the email lists you use after the withdrawal date” in case they “inadvertently include UK email addresses”.

“You should no longer share information or documents with UK delegates or representatives,” said the email. “Should you need to invite UK representatives into our buildings it will be as third-state visitors.”

Britain’s office space in the EU council was already empty on Friday, as diplomats had cleared it out over recent weeks. Union flags were lowered at EU institutions during the afternoon, with one reported to be headed for a museum.

An EU diplomat described the mood in Brussels as “resigned, solemn, uncertain”. “No moment to rejoice,” he added. “No new dawn. Just the reality that the UK has chosen to leave the primary vehicle on this continent for states to do business with each other.”

EU chiefs marked the day with a defiant press conference whose main message was that the bloc was moving on.

Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, confined his thoughts to a tweet: “It’s an emotional day . . . our work continues.”

In the EU quarter of Brussels, officials and their friends and family were among those gathering for a service commemorating Brexit day at the Chapel for Europe.

Attendees at the packed church described an emotional service, with some worshippers breaking down in tears, as they offered prayers for a continued spirit of co-operation and harmony between the EU and the UK.

Brexit day was the formal completion of a gradual UK disengagement, with Britain spending months as a largely passive spectator at the EU council. Britain’s last European commissioner, Julian King, left at the end of November.

The UK now starts the process of a negotiating a trade deal with the EU from outside the room — a big break from how Mr Johnson’s withdrawal agreement was thrashed out.

Asked at a press conference on Friday whether he would be putting in a congratulatory call to Mr Johnson, Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte said: “No, there’s nothing to celebrate.”


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