LONDON: Britain began an uncertain future outside the European Union on Saturday after the country greeted the historic end to almost half a century of EU membership with a mixture of joy and sadness.
There were celebrations and tears on Friday night as the EU’s often reluctant member became the first to leave an organisation set up to forge unity among nations after the horrors of World War II.
Little has changed yet as the UK is now in an 11-month transition period negotiated as part of the divorce.
Britons will be able to work in the EU and trade freely — and vice versa — until December 31, although the UK will no longer be represented in the bloc’s institutions. But legally, Britain is out.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson — whose decisive December election victory finally paved the way for Britain’s long-stalled departure — held a private party in his Downing Street office, with a clock projected on the walls outside counting down the minutes to Brexit.
In a televised address to the nation, he hailed a “new era of friendly cooperation”, acknowledging there could be “bumps in the road ahead” but predicting the country would make it a “stunning success”. “This is not an end but a beginning,” Johnson added.
At a “Big Brexit Bash” in the market town of Morley, northern England, Raymond Stott said he was “glad it’s all over” after several years of domestic political gridlock and acrimony. “We will look after ourselves. We don’t need Europe,” the 66-year-old added.
However, Brexit has exposed deep divisions in British society and many fear the consequences of ending 47 years of ties with their nearest neighbours.
Some pro-Europeans, including many of the 3.6 million EU citizens who have made their lives in Britain, marked the occasion with candlelit gatherings.
There was a sombre atmosphere on one of the last ferries to leave the European mainland pre-Brexit and make the 42-kilometre (26-mile) journey across the Channel.
“It’s very depressing what’s happening today,” said Alessio Bortone, an Italian who has lived in Britain for 10 years.
Brexit has also provoked soul-searching in the EU about its future after losing a country of 66 million people with global diplomatic clout and the financial centre of the City of London.
French President Emmanuel Macron described it as a “historic warning sign” that should force the bloc and its remaining nations of more than 440 million people to stop and reflect.
Britain’s diplomatic mission in Brussels on Saturday changed the building’s nameplate to read “UK Mission to the European Union”, signalling its new non-member status.
Meanwhile, Joao Vale de Almeida, the newly named EU ambassador to Britain, said on Twitter he looked forward to “laying the foundations for a solid EU/UK relationship”.
Getting to this point has been a traumatic process and, while the divorce terms have been agreed, Britain must still strike an agreement on future relations with the EU, its largest trading partner. Both will set out their negotiating positions on Monday.
But Johnson, a polarising figure accused of glossing over the complexity of leaving the bloc, has given himself just 11 months to negotiate the new partnership — not enough time, according to his critics.
London is now free to strike trade deals around the world, including with the United States, whose President Donald Trump is an enthusiastic Brexit supporter. One of his top envoys on Friday hailed an “exciting new era”.
At a special Brexit day ministers’ meeting in northeast England, Johnson discussed an aim to get 80 percent of Britain’s commerce covered by trade agreements within three years, a spokesman said.
Julian Braithwaite, UK Permanent Representative to the WTO, said on Saturday he had formally notified all members of Britain’s EU departure.
“The UK will now represent itself in the WTO, supporting the global trading system which we were instrumental in founding, and advancing our economic interests,” he tweeted.