Outside Downing Street, the official residence of Prime Minister Boris Johnson, protesters set light to EU flags, stamping on the golden-starred insignia, shouting “Burn, burn!”
EU supporters nearby were mocked by a larger group of Brexiters chanting “Bye-bye EU” and “Shame on you” to the tune of Auld Lang Syne.
The sight came in stark contrast to the scene at dawn at the UK’s famed White Cliffs of Dover, the country’s closest geographic point to continental Europe.
A video clip, projected onto the chalk cliff-face by an activist group, featured two military veterans of the second world war expressing their sadness at the UK’s departure from Europe.
A message to Europe, this morning on the White Cliffs of Dover. Sound on. pic.twitter.com/E3VY8BaGjK
— Led By Donkeys (@ByDonkeys) January 31, 2020
Brexit has been called the UK’s most significant geopolitical move since it lost its empire, turning its back on 47 years of EU membership as it begins charting its own course for the generations to come.
“This is the moment when the dawn breaks and the curtain goes up on a new act,” said Johnson, one of the leaders of the “Leave” campaign in the 2016 referendum. “It is a moment of real national renewal and change.”
Johnson said he planned to celebrate with English sparkling wine and a distinctly British array of canapes, including Shropshire blue cheese and Yorkshire puddings with beef and horseradish.
In Brussels, the EU flag was removed from outside the British embassy. The official symbol of the bloc, a circle of 12 stars on a blue background, was pulled in, leaving only the UK’s Union flag fluttering.
A few hours later, the UK’s Union flag was lowered from EU sites, including at the European Council building in Brussels.
But Friday’s departure from the EU is not the end of Brexit.
“Certainly, the heavy lifting, sorting out the UK’s trade relationship with Europe – everything from fishing to financial services – is still to come,” said Al Jazeera’s Rory Challands, reporting from London.
“The EU will be looking to its own priorities and trying to solve its own challenges,” he added. “The UK is already receding in importance.”
Karen Evans, a 47-year-old hairdresser carrying a Union flag outside Parliament, dismissed the concerns of “Remainers”: “They lost. They need to get over it. They are bad losers. This is a day for celebrating.”
But opponents believe Brexit is a folly that will weaken the West, shrivel what is left of the UK’s global clout, undermine its economy and ultimately lead to a less cosmopolitan set of islands in the northern Atlantic.
They say the UK will now have little option but to cosy up to US President Donald Trump’s White House.
David Tucker, a pro-European aged 75, said he had come to London from Wales to march in the hope that others would keep alive the hope that the UK would one day rejoin the EU.
“It is a tragedy,” he said. “We were once part of the world’s most powerful economic bloc. Now we are just an inward-looking island that is going to get smaller.”
Security officials are braced for any trouble that might occur as pro- and anti-Brexit demonstrators take to the streets as the 23:00 GMT official departure time loomed.
“No one can predict what may or may not happen this evening,” a spokesperson for the Metropolitan Police told Al Jazeera. “But a proportionate policing plan is in place.”
“It’s a very sad day,” said engineer Roger Olsen, 63. “I think it is a disaster. An absolutely wrong thing. And I think time will prove that we have taken the wrong course.”
But Brexit was always about much more than Europe. The referendum exposed deep divisions and triggered soul-searching about everything from secession and immigration to empire and modern Britishness.
Brexit has tested the very fabric of the UK: England and Wales voted to leave the bloc but Scotland and Northern Ireland voted to stay.
Scotland’s first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, used the moment to demand a second independence referendum. A poll on Thursday suggested a slim majority of Scots would now back a split because of Brexit.