Brexit at last: Britain leaves the EU for an uncertain future

A man checks his watch a few minutes before Britain leaves the EU on Brexit day in London on Jan 31, 2020.
A man checks his watch a few minutes before Britain leaves the EU on Brexit day in London on Jan 31, 2020.PHOTO: REUTERS

LONDON (REUTERS) - The United Kingdom finally cast off from the European Union on Friday (Jan 31) for an uncertain Brexit future, turning its back after 47 years on the post-World War II project that sought to build the ruined nations of Europe into a global power.

In its biggest geopolitical shift since losing its global empire, the United Kingdom slipped away at 2300 GMT (7am on Saturday, Singapore time) in a step cast by Prime Minister Boris Johnson as the dawn of new era.

Thousands of Brexit supporters gathered outside the British Parliament, waving flags, singing and revelling in a mix of nostalgia, patriotism and defiance.

"This is a fantastic day," said Mr Tony Williams, 53, from south-east London.

"We are free, from 11 o'clock, we have done it... We have done it."

Brexit, once considered the unlikely dream of a motley crew of "eurosceptics" on the fringes of British politics, also weakens the EU, conceived as a way to bind together Europe's major powers in peace after centuries of conflict.

When the exit day finally came, after 3½ years of wrangling since the 2016 referendum, it was an anticlimax of sorts: While Brexiters waving flags toasted freedom in the rain, many Britons showed indifference or relief.

"For many people, this is an astonishing moment of hope, a moment they thought would never come," PM Johnson, the New York-born leader of the official "Leave" campaign, said in a pre-recorded address to the nation.

"Our job as the government - my job - is to bring this country together now and take us forward," he said.

He celebrated in Downing Street with English sparkling wine and a distinctly British array of canapes including Shropshire blue cheese and Yorkshire puddings with beef and horseradish.

The EU's most powerful leaders, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron, cast Brexit as a sad moment that was a turning point for Europe. The EU warned that leaving would be worse than staying.

 
 

United States President Donald Trump has long supported Brexit. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Britons wanted to escape the "tyranny of Brussels".

In Brussels, the British flag was lowered at EU headquarters. Little will change immediately, however, as a transition period keeps the United Kingdom as a member in all but name until the end of 2020.

Brexit supporters young and old packed into Parliament Square to hear Brexit's other talisman, campaigner Nigel Farage.

"We are getting our independence back," Mr Mark Leeds, a 39-year-old butcher, told Reuters beside Parliament.

INDEPENDENCE DAY

Cast either as an epic opportunity or a grave mistake, Brexit has turned long-held views of Britain upside down just as the world grapples with the rise of China and the West's deepest divisions since the 1991 fall of the Soviet Union.

It also diminishes the EU. At the stroke of midnight in Brussels, the bloc lost 15 per cent of its economy, its biggest military spender and the world's international financial capital, London.

Leaving was once a far-fetched idea: The UK joined in 1973 as "the sick man of Europe", and less than two decades ago British leaders were arguing about whether to join the euro.

But the turmoil of the euro zone crisis, fears about mass immigration and miscalculations by former prime minister David Cameron led to the 52 per cent to 48 per cent vote to leave in 2016.

For proponents, Brexit is "independence day" - an escape from what they cast as a German-dominated project with a doomed single currency that is failing its 500 million people.

They hope departure will herald reforms to reshape Britain and propel it ahead of its European rivals.

UNCERTAIN FUTURE

Opponents say Brexit is a folly that will weaken the West, torpedo what is left of Britain's global clout, undermine its economy and ultimately leave it a less cosmopolitan set of islands.

Mr David Tucker, 75, said he had come to London from Wales to march in the hope that others would keep alive the prospect of one day rejoining 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."

Mr Johnson has promised to strike a broad free trade agreement with the EU, the world's biggest trading bloc, though Dr Merkel and Mr Macron have warned that leaving will be harder than staying.

But Brexit was always about much more than Europe. The referendum exposed deep internal divisions and triggered soul-searching about everything from immigration to empire and modern Britishness.

It has tested the very fabric of what now looks a disunited kingdom: England and Wales voted to leave but Scotland and Northern Ireland wanted to stay. The strains could hasten another referendum on Scottish independence and even a push for a united Ireland.

However, people like Mr Adrian Langshaw, 42, said: "We've had enough of the European Union, we don't want it.

"We want to be a sovereign nation and live as a British nation, make our decisions, make our rules and live how we want."