LONDON (AP) – As a estranged couple still living together, Britain and the European Union have spent 2020 arguing and wondering if they could remain friends.
The UK finally moved on Thursday. At 11 p.m. London time – midnight at EU headquarters in Brussels – Britain will economically and practically leave the 27-nation bloc, 11 months after its official political departure.
After more than four years of political Brexit drama, the day itself is a bit disappointing. Britain’s lockdown measures to curb the coronavirus have curtailed mass gatherings to celebrate or mourn the moment, although Parliament’s massive Big Ben bell will ring the hour as it prepares to ring the New Year.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson – for whom Thursday represents the fulfillment of his promise to ‘make Brexit Done’ – said the day “marked a new start in our country’s history and a new relationship with the EU, their greatest ally ”.
“That moment has finally arrived and now is the time to seize it,” he said after the British Parliament overnight approved a trade deal between the UK and the EU, the last formal hurdle of the British side before departure.
It has been four and a half years since Great Britain voted in a referendum to leave the bloc it joined in 1973. The UK left the political structures of the EU on January 31, 2020, but the repercussions of that move are yet to be felt, as the UK’s economic relationship with the bloc has remained unchanged during an 11-month transition period that ends Thursday.
After that, Britain will leave the vast single market and the EU’s customs union – the biggest economic change the country has seen since World War II.
A free trade deal sealed on Christmas Eve after months of tense negotiations will ensure Britain and the 27 EU countries can continue to trade goods without tariffs or quotas. This should help protect the 660 billion pounds ($ 894 billion) in annual trade between the two sides and the hundreds of thousands of jobs that depend on it.
But businesses face new red tape and expense. Traders are struggling to digest the new rules imposed by a 1,200-page deal that was reached just a week before the changes.
The Channel port of Dover and the Eurotunnel passenger and freight link are bracing for delays, although the pandemic and the holiday weekend mean there will be less cross-Channel traffic than usual. The vital supply route has been harassed for days after France closed its border to British truckers for 48 hours last week in response to a rapidly spreading variant of the virus identified in England.
The UK government has insisted that ‘the border systems and infrastructure we need are in place and we are ready for the UK’s fresh start’.
But freight companies are holding their breath. British transport company Youngs Transportation is suspending services to the EU from Monday to January 11 “to let things work out.”
“We think this gives the country a week or so to get used to all of these new systems and we can take a look and hopefully resolve any issues before we actually send our trucks,” said Youngs director Rob Hollyman.
The service sector, which accounts for 80% of the UK economy, doesn’t even know what the rules will be for doing business with the EU in 2021 – many details have yet to be clarified. Months and years of further discussion and argument on everything from fair competition to fishing quotas await as Britain and the EU settles into their new relationship as friends, neighbors and rivals.
Hundreds of millions of people in Britain and the bloc are also facing changes in their daily lives. After Thursday, British and European citizens lose the automatic right to live and work in each other’s territory. Now they will have to follow immigration rules and obtain work visas. Tourists won’t need visas for short trips, but new headaches – from travel insurance to pet papers – persist for Britons visiting the continent.
For some in Britain, including the Prime Minister, it is a moment of pride, a takeover of national independence from a vast Brussels bureaucracy.
Conservative lawmaker Bill Cash, who has campaigned for Brexit for decades, said it was a ‘victory for democracy and sovereignty’.
For others, it is a time of loss.
Roger Liddle, an opposition Labor Party member in the House of Lords, said Brexit had separated Britain from ‘the most successful peace project in history’.
“Today is a victory for poisoned nationalist populism over liberal rule-based internationalism and it’s a very bad, and for me, a very painful day,” he said.
This sentiment was echoed by the French Minister for Europe, Clément Beaune.
“It’s a day that will be historic, that will be sad,” he told broadcaster LCI.
“But we also have to look to the future. There are a number of lessons to be learned from Brexit, starting with the lies, I think, that have been told to the British. And we will see that what was promised – some sort of total freedom, a lack of restrictions, of influence – I think it will not happen.
John Leicester in Pecq, France, contributed to this story.
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