With little fuss and not much fanfare, Britain left the European Union on Friday after 47 years of membership, taking a leap into the unknown in a historic blow to the bloc.
The UK’s departure became official at 11 p.m., midnight in Brussels, where the EU is headquartered. Thousands of enthusiastic Brexit supporters gathered outside Britain’s Parliament cheered as the hour struck. They had been hoping for this moment since Britain’s 52-48 percent vote in June 2016 to walk away from the club it had joined in 1973. Prime Minister Boris Johnson called Britain’s departure “a moment of real national renewal and change.” But many Britons mourned the loss of their EU identity, and some marked the passing with tearful vigils. There was also sadness in Brussels as British flags were quietly removed from the bloc’s many buildings. Whether Brexit makes Britain a proud nation that has reclaimed its sovereignty, or a diminished presence in Europe and the world, will be debated for years to come.
While Britain’s exit is a historic moment, it only marks the end of the first stage of the Brexit saga. When Britons wake up on Saturday, they will notice very little change. The UK and the EU have given themselves an 11-month “transition period” — in which the UK will continue to follow the bloc’s rules to strike new agreements on trade, security and a host of other areas. The now 27-member EU will have to bounce back from one of the biggest setbacks in its 62-year history to confront an ever more complicated world as its former member becomes a competitor, just across the English Channel. French President Emmanuel Macron called Brexit a “historic alarm signal” that should force the EU to improve itself. “It’s a sad day, let’s not hide it,” he said in a televised address. “But it is a day that must also lead us to do things differently.” He insisted that European citizens need a united Europe “more than ever,” to defend their interests in the face of China and the United States, to cope with climate change and migration and technological upheaval. In the many EU buildings of Brussels on Friday, British flags were quietly lowered, folded and taken away. This is the first time a country has left the EU, and many in the bloc rued the day. EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen lamented that “as the sun rises tomorrow a new chapter for our union of 27 will start.” But she warned Brexit day would mark a major loss for the UK and said the island nation was heading for a lonelier existence. “Strength does not lie in splendid isolation, but in our unique union,” she said. UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson insisted post-Brexit Britain would be “simultaneously a great European power and truly global in our range and ambitions.” “We want this to be the beginning of a new era of friendly cooperation between the EU and an energetic Britain,” Johnson said in a pre-recorded address to the country broadcast an hour before Britain’s exit. In a break with usual practice, independent media outlets were not allowed to film Johnson’s speech, which the government recorded Thursday at 10 Downing St. Johnson won an election victory in December with a dual promise to “get Brexit done” and deliver improved jobs, infrastructure, and services for Britain’s most deprived areas, where support for leaving the EU is strongest. On Friday, he symbolically held a Cabinet meeting in the pro-Brexit town of Sunderland in northeast England, rather than in London. ALSO READ: Man conspires with friends, kills, burns, buries girlfriend in Taraba Johnson is a Brexit enthusiast, but he knows many Britons aren’t, and his Conservative government aimed to mark the moment with quiet dignity. Red, white and blue lights illuminated government buildings and a countdown clock projected onto the prime minister’s Downing Street residence. There was no such restraint in nearby Parliament Square, where arch-Brexiteer Nigel Farage gathered a crowd of several thousand, who belted out the patriotic song “Land of Hope and Glory” as they awaited a moment that even Farage sometimes doubted would ever come. Londoner Donna Jones said she had come to “be part of history.” “It doesn’t mean we’re anti-Europe, it just means we want to be self-sufficient in a certain way,” she said. But Britons who cherished their membership in the bloc and the freedom it bought to live anywhere across of 28 countries were mourning. “Many of us want to just mark our sadness in public,” said Ann Jones, who joined dozens of other remainers on a march to the EU’s mission in London. “And we don’t want trouble, we just want to say, well you know, we didn’t want this.” Britain’s journey to Brexit has been long, rocky and far from over. The UK was never a wholehearted EU member, but actually leaving the bloc was long considered a fringe idea. It gradually gained strength within the Conservative Party, which has a wing of fierce “Euroskeptics” opponents of EU membership. Former Prime Minister David Cameron eventually agreed to hold a referendum, saying he wanted to settle the issue once and for all. It hasn’t worked out that way. Since the 2016 vote, the UK has held fractious negotiations with the EU that finally, late last year, secured a deal on divorce terms. But Britain is leaving the bloc arguably as divided as it was on referendum day. By and large, Britain’s big cities voted to stay in the EU, while small towns voted to leave. England and Wales backed Brexit, while Northern Ireland and Scotland voted to remain. Candlelit vigils were held in several Scottish cities, government buildings in Edinburgh were lit up in the EU’s blue and yellow colors, and the bloc’s flag continued to fly outside the Scottish Parliament.