• Thursday, May 28, 2020
  • Last Update : 08:58 pm

Britain leaves EU, leaps into the unknown

  • Published at 05:55 pm February 1st, 2020
Officials remove the British flag at European Union Council in Brussels, Belgium on January 31, 2020 Reuters

'The most important thing to say tonight is that this is not an end but a beginning'

Britain began an uncertain future outside the European Union on Saturday after the country greeted the historic end to almost half a century of EU membership with a mixture of joy and sadness.

There were celebrations and tears on Friday as the EU's often reluctant member became the first to leave an organization set up to forge unity among nations after the horrors of World War II.

Little has changed as of Saturday as the UK is now in an 11-month transition period negotiated as part of the divorce.

Britons will be able to work in the EU and trade freely - and vice versa - until December 31, although the UK will no longer be represented in the bloc's institutions.

But legally, Britain is out.

Thousands of people waving Union Jack flags packed London's Parliament Square and sang the national anthem to mark that reality as Brexit became law at 2300 GMT - midnight in Brussels.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson - a figurehead in the seismic 2016 referendum vote to leave -- held a private party in his Downing Street office with a clock projected on the walls outside counting down the minutes to departure.

In an address to the nation, he hailed a "new era of friendly cooperation" acknowledging there could be "bumps in the road ahead" but predicting 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," he said.

At a "Big Brexit Bash" in the market town of Morley, northern England, Raymond Stott said he was "glad it's all over" after years of political gridlock and acrimony.

"We will look after ourselves. We don't need Europe," said the 66-year-old.

Deep divisions

However, Brexit has exposed deep divisions in British society and many fear the consequences of ending 47 years of ties with their nearest neighbours.

Some pro-Europeans, including many of the 3.6 million EU citizens who have made their lives in Britain, marked the occasion with candlelit gatherings.

There was a sombre atmosphere among passengers on one of the last ferries to leave the European mainland pre-Brexit and make the 42km journey across the English Channel.

"It's very depressing what's happening today," said Alessio Bortone, an Italian who has lived in Britain for 10 years.

Some Britons in southern Spain celebrated in bars but for many pro-Europeans Friday marked a day they hoped would never come.

Brexit has also provoked soul-searching in the EU about its future after losing a country of 66 million people with global diplomatic clout and the financial centre of the City of London.

French President Emmanuel Macron described it as a "historic warning sign" that should force the EU and its remaining nations of more than 440 million people to stop and reflect.

Britain's diplomatic mission in Brussels sent an employee out early on Saturday to change the building's nameplate to read "UK Mission to the European Union", signalling its new non-member status.

Meanwhile, Joao Vale de Almeida, the newly named EU ambassador to Britain, said on Twitter he looked forward to "laying the foundations for a solid EU/UK relationship."

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