LONDON: The United Kingdom began the New Year outside the European Union’s orbit on Friday after ending a tempestuous 48-year liaison with the European project, its most significant geopolitical shift since the loss of empire.
Brexit took effect in substance on Thursday at the strike of midnight in Brussels, or 2300 London time (GMT), at the end of a transition period that largely maintained the status quo for 11 months after Britain formally left the EU on Jan 31, 2020.
“This is an amazing moment for this country,” Prime Minister Boris Johnson, 56, 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.” For five years, the frenzied gyrations of the Brexit crisis dominated European affairs, buffeted the sterling markets and tarnished the United Kingdom’s reputation as a reliable pillar of Western stability.
Supporters cast Brexit as the dawn of a newly independent “global Britain”, but the drama has weakened the bonds that bind England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.
After all the vitriol, one of the most significant events in European history since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 passed with little fanfare: the United Kingdom slipped away, shrouded in the silence of the Covid-19 crisis.
With gatherings banned in London and most of the country due to soaring rates of infection, there were few outward displays of emotion when the Great Bell known as Big Ben tolled 11 through a scaffold on Thursday night.
As EU leaders and citizens bade farewell, Johnson said there would be no bonfire of regulations to build a “bargain basement Dickensian Britain” and that the country would remain the “quintessential European civilisation”.
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 had voted for Britain to remain in the bloc, said he was applying for a French passport, which would give him rights and freedoms in Europe now inaccessible to most Britons.
In the June 23, 2016, referendum, 17.4 million voters, or 52pc, backed Brexit while 16.1 million, or 48pc, backed staying in the bloc. Few have changed their minds since. England and Wales voted out but Scotland and Northern Ireland voted in.
“Scotland will be back soon, Europe. Keep the light on,” Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said on Thursday.
The referendum revealed a United Kingdom polarised 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. Two decades ago British leaders were arguing whether to join the euro. They never did.
But the turmoil of the euro zone crisis, attempts to integrate the EU further, fears about mass immigration and discontent with leaders in London helped Brexiteers win the referendum with a message of patriotic, if vague, hope.
“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 parliamentary majority since Margaret Thatcher.
Published in Dawn, January 2nd, 2021