Brexit finally becomes a reality on Thursday as Britain leaves Europe’s customs union and single market, ending nearly half a century of often turbulent ties with its closest neighbours.
The UK’s tortuous departure from the European Union takes full effect when Big Ben strikes 11:00 pm (2300 GMT) in central London, just as most of the European mainland ushers in 2021 at midnight.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson called it an “amazing moment”, which would make Britain “an open, generous, outward-looking, internationalist and free-trading” country.
“We have our freedom in our hands and it is up to us to make the most of it,” he said in a New Year’s message to the nation.
Most people in Britain and in Europe are keen to draw a line under Brexit, which has dominated politics on both sides of the Channel since the country’s narrow vote to leave in 2016.
The referendum on EU membership opened up deep political and social wounds which remain raw, with the consequences of Britain’s departure to be felt for generations to come — for better or worse.
The British pound surged to a 2.5-year peak against the US dollar before the long-awaited exit from the single market, 11 months since the country legally left the EU in January.
Britain has been in a standstill transition period since then, during fractious talks to secure a free-trade agreement with Brussels, which was only finally clinched on Christmas Eve.
– ‘Be our own bosses’ -Once Big Ben tolls at 11:00 pm, EU rules will no longer apply, and the free movement of more than 500 million people between Britain and the 27 EU states ends.
Gibraltar, a British enclave off the coast of southern Spain, is the exception, after inking a last-minute deal with Madrid to avoid a hard border and major disruption.
Elsewhere though, customs border checks return for the first time in decades, and despite the free-trade deal, queues and disruption from additional paperwork are expected.
“It’s going to be better,” said Maureen Martin, from Dover on the southeastern coast of England, where most voted to leave the EU in 2016. “We need to govern ourselves and be our own bosses.”
– ‘Our future is made in Europe’ – Britain — a financial and diplomatic big-hitter plus a major NATO power — is the first member state to leave the EU, which was set up to forge unity across the continent after the horrors of World War II.
The EU has lost 66 million people and an economy worth $2.85 trillion, but Brexit, with its appeal to nationalist populism, also triggered fears other disgruntled members could follow suit.
“It’s been a long road. It’s time now to put Brexit behind us. Our future is made in Europe,” European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen said on Wednesday, as she signed the trade pact.
The pro-Brexit Daily Mail newspaper celebrated a “new dawn” but the Daily Telegraph, where Johnson made his name as a Brussels-bashing Europe correspondent, sounded a note of caution.
“Politicians will have to get used to bearing much greater responsibilities than they have been used to while the UK has been in the EU,” it said.
– ‘New beginning’ -In January, flag-waving Brexiteers led by populist anti-EU former lawmaker Nigel Farage cheered and pro-EU “remainers” mourned.
But no formal events are planned for the end of the transition.
Public gatherings are banned due to the coronavirus outbreak, which has claimed more than 73,500 lives and infected nearly 2.5 million people in Britain, including Johnson himself.
Johnson is looking not only to a future free of Covid but also of rules set in Brussels, as he attempts to forge a global identity for Britain for the first time since it joined the then European Economic Community in 1973.
As well as ensuring tariff- and quota-free access to the EU’s 450 million consumers, Britain has recently signed trade deals with countries including Japan, Canada, Singapore and Turkey.
It is also eyeing another with India, where Johnson plans to make his first major trip as prime minister next month, and with incoming US president Joe Biden’s administration.
– ‘Go for Scottish independence’ – In the short term, all eyes will be closer to home and focused on how life outside the EU plays out in practical terms, from changes in pet passports and student exchange programmes to driving licence rules.
Fear of disruption at the ports has stoked fears of food and medicine shortages, as well as delays to holidaymakers and business travellers used to seamless travel in the EU.
The government said some border controls will not be implemented for months as part of Britain’s staged plan, and it was not expecting much disruption around the ports until next week, with traffic light due to the holiday period.
However, it also warned that around 50 percent of small and medium exporters might not yet be ready for the new trading arrangements.
British fishermen are disgruntled at a compromise to allow continued access for EU boats in British waters.
The key financial services sector also faces an anxious wait to learn on what basis it can keep dealing with Europe, after being largely omitted from the trade deal.
Northern Ireland’s border with EU member state Ireland will be closely watched to ensure movement is unrestricted — a key plank of a 1998 peace deal that ended 30 years of violence over British rule.
And in pro-EU Scotland, where Brexit has given a boost to calls for a new vote on independence, Johnson faces a potential constitutional headache as 2021 dawns.
“I think it’s really sad that we’re leaving,” Zoe Stewart told AFP on the deserted streets of Edinburgh, which would normally be packed for New Year’s celebrations.
“We should go for independence,” she added.