LONDON: Britain on Friday (Jan 31) ended almost half a century of European Union membership, making a historic exit after years of bitter arguments to chart its own uncertain path in the world.
There were celebrations and tears across the country 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.
Thousands of people waving Union Jack flags packed London’s Parliament Square to mark the moment of Brexit at 11pm-midnight in Brussels.
“We are a free nation,” declared John Moss, a 44-year-old businessman who joined the crowd, which erupted into cheers as the clock ticked down.
Many pro-Europeans, including many of the 3.6 million EU citizens who made their lives in Britain, marked the occasion with solemn candlelit vigils.
Brexit has exposed deep divisions in British society.
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One Brexit supporter set fire to an EU flag in central London.
Away from the celebrations, many fear the consequences of ending 47 years of ties with their nearest neighbors.
It has also provoked soul-searching in the EU about its own future after losing 66 million people, a global diplomatic big-hitter and the clout of the City of London financial center.
“NOT AN END, A BEGINNING”
Prime Minister Boris Johnson, a figurehead in the seismic 2016 referendum vote for Brexit, acknowledged there might be “bumps in the road ahead” but said Britain could make it a “stunning success”.
As he held a party in his Downing Street office, a clock projected on the walls outside counted down the minutes until Brexit.
Johnson has promised to unite the island nation in a new era of prosperity, predicting a “new era of friendly cooperation” with the EU while Britain takes a greater role on the world stage.
“The most important thing to say tonight is that this is not an end but a beginning,” he said in a televised address.
EU institutions earlier began removing red, white and blue Union flags in Brussels ahead of a divorce that German Chancellor Angela Merkel called a “sea-change” for the bloc.
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 departure was sealed in an emotional vote in the EU parliament this week that ended with MEPs singing “Auld Lang Syne”, a traditional Scottish song of farewell.
But almost nothing will change straight away, because of an 11-month transition period negotiated as part of the exit deal.
Britons will be able to work in and trade freely with EU nations until Dec 31, and vice versa, although the UK will no longer be represented in the bloc’s institutions.
But legally, Britain is out.
And while the divorce terms have been agreed, Britain must still strike a deal on future relations with the EU, its largest trading partner.
Both will set out their negotiating positions Monday.
“We want to have the best possible relationship with the United Kingdom, but it will never be as good as membership,” European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen said in Brussels.
YEARS OF TUMULT
Getting this far has been a traumatic process.
Britain resisted many EU projects over the years, refusing to join the single currency or the Schengen open travel area, and eurosceptics have long complained about Brussels bureaucracy.
Worries about mass migration added further fuel to the Brexit campaign while for some, the 2016 vote was a chance to punish the government for years of cuts to public spending.
But the result was still a huge shock.
It unleashed political chaos, sparking years of toxic arguments that paralyzed parliament and forced the resignations of prime ministers David Cameron and Theresa May.
Johnson brought an end to the turmoil with last month’s decisive election victory which gave him the parliamentary majority he needed to ratify his Brexit deal.
But Britons remain as divided as they were nearly four years ago when 52 percent voted to leave and 48 percent voted to remain in the EU.
In Scotland, where a majority voted to stay in 2016, Brexit has revived calls for independence and there were protests Friday outside parliament.
“I think it’s shameful that Scotland has been pulled out against its will,” said Joe Harrow, a tourist guide in Edinburgh.
In Northern Ireland, where there are fears Brexit could destabilize a hard-won peace after decades of conflict over British rule, a billboard read: “This island rejects Brexit.”
“GLAD IT’S OVER”
Johnson, who remains a polarizing figure, has avoided any big official celebrations that might exacerbate divisions.
He hosted a special cabinet meeting in the northeastern city of Sunderland, which was the first to declare for Brexit in 2016.
Featured Image Origin: Andrew Testa | The New York Times