Britain cuts loose from the EU with joy, anger and indifference

  • >> Reuters
    Published: 2020-01-31 22:42:24 BdST

The United Kingdom leaves the European Union on Friday with a mixture of joy, anger and indifference, casting off into the unknown in one of the biggest blows yet to Europe's attempt to forge unity from the ruins of World War Two.

In the United Kingdom's most significant geopolitical move since its lost its empire, the EU's most reluctant member prepared to exit an hour before midnight.

Brexit supporters burned an EU flag outside Downing Street, where Prime Minister Boris Johnson lives. Some EU supporters were mocked by a larger group of Brexiteers nearby chanting "Bye-bye EU" and "Shame on you" to the tune of Auld Lang Syne.

At the stroke of midnight in Brussels, the EU will lose 15% of its economy, its biggest military spender and the world's international financial capital - London. Britain must begin charting a course for generations to come.

Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson waves as he arrives to attend a cabinet meeting held at the National Glass Centre at the University of Sunderland, in Sunderland, Britain January 31, 2020. Paul Ellis/Pool via REUTERS

Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson waves as he arrives to attend a cabinet meeting held at the National Glass Centre at the University of Sunderland, in Sunderland, Britain January 31, 2020. Paul Ellis/Pool via REUTERS

Johnson planned to celebrate with English sparkling wine and a distinctly British array of canapés including Shropshire blue cheese and Yorkshire puddings with beef and horseradish.

"This is the moment when the dawn breaks and the curtain goes up on a new act," said Johnson, one of the leaders of the "Leave" campaign in the 2016 referendum. "It is a moment of real national renewal and change."

Europe's most powerful leader, Chancellor Angela Merkel, said it was a "major turning point" for the EU, but that Germany wanted to remain Britain's partner and friend.

French President Emmanuel Macron was due to make a televised address to "take note of a sad and historic day", "explain what Brexit means" for France and "assure the French that he will defend French and EU interests in the upcoming negotiations", his office said.

But Washington said Britons wanted to escape the "tyranny of Brussels".

A man burns an EU flag on Brexit day in London, Britain January 31, 2020. Reuters

A man burns an EU flag on Brexit day in London, Britain January 31, 2020. Reuters

ANTICLIMAX

After 47 years of membership, the final parting is an anticlimax of sorts.

Beyond the symbolism of the Union Jack flag being lowered at the European Council building in Brussels at 7 p.m. (1800 GMT), put away with the flags of non-EU countries, little will change until the end of 2020.

By then, Johnson has promised to strike a broad free trade agreement with the EU, the world's biggest trading bloc.

Some Britons will celebrate and some will weep -- but many will do neither.

For proponents, Brexit is "independence day" - an escape from what they cast as a doomed 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.

Karen Evans, a 47-year-old hairdresser carrying a Union Jack, dismissed the concerns of "Remainers": "They lost. They need to get over it. They are bad losers. This is a day for celebrating."

David Tucker, a pro-European of 75, said he had come to London from Wales to march in the hope that others would keep alive the hope that Britain would one day rejoin the EU:

"It is a tragedy," he fumed. "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."

Opponents believe Brexit is a folly that will weaken the West, shrivel what is left of Britain's global clout, undermine its economy and ultimately lead to a less cosmopolitan set of islands in the northern Atlantic. They say Britain will now have little option but to cosy up to US President Donald Trump.

"It's a very sad day," said Roger Olsen, a 63-year-old engineer. "I think it is a disaster. An absolutely wrong thing. And I think time will prove that we have taken the wrong course."

Anti-Brexit demonstrators visit Europe House to give flowers to the staff on Brexit day in London, Britain January 31, 2020. Reuters

Anti-Brexit demonstrators visit Europe House to give flowers to the staff on Brexit day in London, Britain January 31, 2020. Reuters

DIS-UNITED KINGDOM

Brexit was always about much more than Europe.

The referendum, which split voters 52% to 48%, exposed deep divisions and triggered soul-searching about everything from secession and immigration to empire and modern Britishness.

Allies and investors were left astonished by a country that for decades had seemed a confident pillar of Western stability.

Brexit has tested the very fabric of the supposedly united kingdom: England and Wales voted to leave the bloc but Scotland and Northern Ireland voted to stay.

Scotland's First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, used the moment to demand a second independence referendum. A poll on Thursday suggested a slim majority of Scots would now back a split because of Brexit.

But after the numerous twists and turns of a 3-1/2-year crisis, many voters are simply happy that years of wrangling are over. "I just wanted to see it done with," said Lee Stokes, a 44-year-old project manager.

Johnson was chairing a cabinet meeting in Sunderland, the first city to declare a majority of votes for leaving the EU. Brexiteers will celebrate at 11 p.m. on Parliament Square.

"We should have done it a long time ago," said Helen Brown, 50, in Dagenham, east London. "I'm glad Boris has finally pulled his finger out. It will be tough at first. But I think it will be good for the country in the long run."