Britain’s stormy 47-year membership of the EU ended at 11pm on Friday evening in an unprecedented blow to the continent’s post-war integration process. “This is a deep blow for us all”, said Chancellor Angela Merkel.
Boris Johnson marked Brexit with a sober but optimistic address to the nation, claiming that divorce was inevitable. “Despite all its strengths and admirable qualities, the EU has developed over the last 50 years in a direction that no longer suits this country,” he said.
Britain’s withdrawal from the EU marks the first time a major country has left the bloc and deprives the 27-member Union of one of its largest economies and most powerful military and diplomatic actors. “This withdrawal is a shock,” French President Emmanuel Macron said on Friday evening. “It is a historic alarm signal that should echo in each of our countries, be understood throughout Europe and give us food for thought.
But Mr Johnson’s claim that Brexit would allow the government to “unleash the full potential of this brilliant country” was immediately refuted by other European leaders who claimed that the prime minister was inflicting self-harm on his nation.
Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission, said on Friday: “Our experience has taught us that strength lies not in great isolation but in our unique Union.”
She wished Britain well, but vowed to fight for the interests of the EU in the forthcoming negotiations on future relations. She said that although the bloc wanted “the best possible relationship” with Britain, it would never be “as good as membership”.
The British will wake up on 1 February and see little practical change in the way they interact with the EU: a stalemate transition period, to run until the end of 2020, will mean little change in practical terms.
But Britain has lost all its formal representation in Brussels and is now a “third country” seeking a trade agreement from outside the area with an impressive negotiating partner. Ms Merkel said that talks with the UK would be “the dominant theme of this year”.
She warned Mr Johnson that it would have negative consequences for the British economy if he insisted on seeking a “Canadian style” trade agreement with the EU, where tariffs and quotas would be abolished but the UK would be allowed to deviate from Brussels rules. “The more the UK will deviate from single market conditions, the greater the differences will be in our future relations,” said the German Chancellor.
At a rally in Parliament Square in Westminster on Friday evening, prominent Brexit Nigel Farage told supporters: “The war is over, we won” and said there was “a lot to celebrate and a lot to look forward to”.
“For the first time the people have beaten the establishment, and we must celebrate. The real winner tonight is democracy,” he said.
Michael Gove, a leading Brexit campaigner and Cabinet Secretary, told British business leaders this week that the government was prepared to see costs and delays at the border as the price of regaining Britain’s sovereign right to its own laws and regulations.
Mr Johnson told his cabinet, which held a meeting on Friday in the Brexit-promoted town of Sunderland in the north of the country, that the UK aims to “cover 80 per cent of our trade within three years through free trade agreements”.
Under a graphite-grey sky, Brexit supporters gathered in Parliament Square in central London to celebrate with Union flags the day when Britain became a “sovereign country” again, free from the shackles of Brussels.
Elsewhere, however, there was a subdued atmosphere as the clock ticked down to 11 pm on Friday, the starting point. Many Brexiteers respected the grief of their fellow citizens who voted for Remain in the 2016 EU referendum.
Steve Baker, leader of the pro-Brexit European group of Conservative MEPs, set the tone this week when he told colleagues: “I’m going to celebrate. I will have a smile, I will have a glass of champagne, I will have a good time.
“But I will celebrate discreetly, and I will celebrate in a way that respects the real sorrow that others feel at the same time. Boris Johnson hosted a low-key drinks party at No. 10, where, in addition to roast beef, Shropshire blue cheese and a lunch for ploughmen, an English wine was served – a menu dating back to a time when Britain’s taste buds had no culinary link with the rest of Europe.
The buildings in Whitehall were lit up, but Downing Street officials said the party would end and the lights went out shortly after Brexit was finished. The work of the government, however, continues, after all of the intense events of the last three years, when Britain was leaving the EU, and, apparently, is shutting the door for some time.
During Brexit Day itself, Mr Johnson led his Cabinet to Sunderland, which was the first town to vote to leave the EU when the results of the Brexit referendum arrived. Sunderland is also the location Nissan chose in the 1980s for a plant that produces cars for the huge EU single market, taking advantage of the smooth border between Britain and the rest of the block.
But Mr Johnson’s spokesman acknowledged the “processes” that companies like Nissan – with complex supply chains spanning Europe – will face on the future UK-EU border when the prime minister secures his long-promised “Canadian-style trade agreement” with the bloc.
Faced with the remaining uncertainties, Justin Welby, Archbishop of Canterbury, told the BBC that Britain “must be united in a common vision for our country, however great our differences may be in realising that vision”.
Brexit party leader Nigel Farage, however, was less conciliatory. “At last the day is coming when we will break out,” he said. “A massive popular victory over the establishment.” The Union Jack will be taken off Friday in front of the European Council building in Brussels.
Britain’s EU membership sank in the course of a wet afternoon marked by an acute awareness within the block’s bulky institutions of how different life will be without the British. Staff at the Council of the EU, the powerful body that brings together national governments, were sent a stern e-mail warning by the heads of administration to ensure that 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” if they “inadvertently contain British email addresses”. “You should no longer pass on information or documents to British delegates or representatives,” the email said. “If you need to invite British representatives to our buildings, do so as visitors from a third country”.
The British office in the EU Council was already empty on Friday, as diplomats had cleared it in recent weeks. In the course of the afternoon, the flags of the Union were lowered in the EU institutions, one of which is to go to a museum. Recommended Philip Stephens Always detached, Britain has now forced a complete separation from Brussels An EU diplomat described the mood in Brussels as “resigned, solemn, insecure”.
“No cause for joy,” he added. “No new dawn. Just the reality that Britain has decided to leave the most important vehicle on this continent for states to do business with each other. EU leaders accompanied the day with a defiant press conference, the main message of which was that the bloc is moving forward.”
Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief negotiator in Brexit, limited his thoughts to a tweet: “It’s an emotional day … our work goes on.”