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A divided United Kingdom casts off into the Brexit unknown

Leaving was once the far-fetched dream of a motley crew of “eurosceptics” on the fringes of British politics

Reuters , Thursday 31 Dec 2020
Britain
A freight lorry is driven into passport control at the Eurotunnel terminal at Folkestone, Southeast England, on December 31, 2020 the day that Britain leaves the EU single market and customs union AFP
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The United Kingdom exits the European Union's orbit on Thursday, turning its back on a tempestuous 48-year liaison with the European project and entering a post-Brexit future whose details are still uncertain after years of drama over the departure.

Brexit, in essence, takes place at the strike of midnight in Brussels, or 2300 London time (GMT), when the United Kingdom leaves de-facto membership that continued for a transition period after it formally left the bloc on Jan. 31.

For five years, the frenzied gyrations of the Brexit crisis dominated European affairs, haunted the sterling markets and tarnished the United Kingdom's reputation as a confident pillar of Western economic and political stability.

Supporters cast Brexit as the dawn of a newly independent "global Britain", but it has weakened the bonds that tie England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland into a $3 trillion economy.

"Brexit is not an end but a beginning," Prime Minister Boris Johnson, 56, told parliament just hours before it approved his post-Brexit EU trade deal. Grinning, he later jokingly assured reporters that he had read the lengthy agreement that was reached only on Dec. 24.

Johnson said there would be no bonfire of regulations to build a "bargain basement Dickensian Britain" and told Europe that the United Kingdom would remain the "quintessential European civilization".

But Johnson, the face of the Brexit campaign, has been short on detail about what he wants to build with Britain's "independence" - or how to do it while borrowing record amounts to pay for the COVID-19 crisis.

His 80-year-old father, Stanley Johnson, who voted to remain in 2016, said he was in the process of applying for a French passport.

BREXIT

In the June 23, 2016, referendum, 17.4 million voters, or 52%, backed Brexit while 16.1 million, or 48%, backed staying in the bloc. Few have changed their minds since. England and Wales voted out but Scotland and Northern Ireland voted in.

The referendum showed a United Kingdom divided about much more than the European Union, and fuelled soul-searching about everything from secession and immigration to capitalism, the legacy of empire and what it now means to be British.

Leaving was once the far-fetched dream of a motley crew of “eurosceptics” on the fringes of British politics: the UK joined in 1973 as “the sick man of Europe” and two decades ago British leaders were arguing about whether to join the euro.

"The UK establishment had basically lost its mojo and we went into what was then the Common Market, really, for reasons of self-protection - we thought that was the best future for us, we couldn't see another way forward," Johnson said.

Fast forward 48 years.

"We see a global future for ourselves," said Johnson who won power in 2019 and, against the odds, clinched a Brexit divorce treaty and a trade deal, as well as the biggest Conservative majority since Margaret Thatcher, in the 2019 election.

Supporters see Brexit as an escape from a project that had fallen far behind global powers the United States and China. Opponents say it will weaken the West, further reduce Britain’s global clout, undermine its economy and lessen its cosmopolitanism.

But when the Great Bell known as Big Ben strikes 11 in London, there will be few outward displays of emotion as gatherings are banned due to COVID-19 restrictions.

UNITED KINGDOM?

After the United Kingdom leaves the Single Market or the Customs Union, there is almost certain to be some disruption at borders. More red tape means more cost for those importing and exporting goods across the EU-UK border.

The Port of Dover expects volumes to drop off in early January. The most worrisome period, it says, will be in mid- to late January when volumes pick up again.

The exit also means changes to everything from pet passports and driving licence rules for the British in Europe to data rules.

Support for Scottish independence has risen, partly due to Brexit and partly due to COVID-19, threatening the 300-year-old political union between England and Scotland.

Scottish leader Nicola Sturgeon has said an independence referendum should take place in the earlier part of the devolved parliament's next term, which begins next year.

After clinching the Christmas Eve trade deal that will smooth out the worst disruption, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen quoted both William Shakespeare and T.S. Eliot.

"Parting is such sweet sorrow," she said. "What we call the beginning is often the end. And to make an end is to make a beginning."

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