The United Kingdom has left the European Union’s economic and political orbit in an historic departure that has split Britons politically and marked the country’s greatest shift on the global stage in modern times.
As the clock struck 11pm in London on Thursday (23:00 GMT), December 31, the Brexit transition period came to an end and the UK exited the bloc’s single market and customs union.
Supporters claim the move will set the country free to pursue new opportunities as an independent global power.
But critics say it reverses decades of integration with its closest neighbours and threatens to break up the UK, harm the country’s economy and diminish its international standing.
“This is an amazing moment for this country,” Prime Minister Boris Johnson said in his New Year’s Eve message. “We have our freedom in our hands and it is up to us to make the most of it.”
Thursday’s momentous shift came more than four years after a slim majority of Britons voted in favour of quitting the EU in a controversial June 2016 referendum.
That vote unleashed a political crisis in the UK that effectively ended the political careers of Johnson’s two predecessors, Theresa May and David Cameron, polarised the nation, saw a rise in xenophobia and soured relations with the bloc, its largest trading partner.
The relationship between London and Brussels will now be reset under the terms of their recently inked Trade and Cooperation Agreement.
In essence, it is a narrow free trade pact surrounded with other agreements on a range of issues including energy, transport and police and security cooperation.
The agreement was finally brokered a week ago, following months of fractious negotiations in the so-called “transition period”, which began after the UK’s formal departure from the EU in January.
The deal averts the prospect of a chaotic split and ensures goods can continue to travel between the UK and the EU without tariffs or quotas, smoothing trade worth hundreds of billions of pounds – and euros – a year.
But London’s departure from Brussels’s orbit will nevertheless bring about a raft of new rules and red tape for business.
How Britons and Europeans live, work and travel between the country and the continent will also change, with new visa regulations taking effect.
Some revelled in the final departure. Arch Brexiteer Nigel Farage posted a picture of himself with a glass of wine and a cigarette on Twitter. “This is a big moment for our country, a giant leap forward,” he wrote. Time to raise a glass.”
‘Keep the light on’
Others were less optimistic.
Outside the British embassy in Brussels on Thursday, around 20 British people held a candlelit vigil and sang the Scottish farewell song, Auld Lang Syne, to “mourn” the UK’s departure.
“We are mourning what we’ve lost,” Jeremy Thomas, an IT engineer from West Yorkshire who first moved from Wakefield to Belgium in 1972 and returned in 2002 with his family, told the Reuters news agency. “I have no word for what we’re throwing away.”
The bitter debate over Brexit has also undermined the union of nations that make up the UK, with support for independence re-emerging in Scotland, where there was significant support for remaining within the European Union.
Scottish leader Nicola Sturgeon has said an independence referendum should take place in the earlier part of the devolved parliament’s next term. In the last vote in 2014, the country voted to stay within the UK.
“Scotland will be back soon, Europe. Keep the light on,” Sturgeon tweeted.
Scotland will be back soon, Europe. Keep the light on 🏴❤️🇪🇺❤️🏴 pic.twitter.com/qJMImoz3y0
— Nicola Sturgeon (@NicolaSturgeon) December 31, 2020