LONDON/BRUSSELS • Britain starts a new but still uncertain chapter today in its long history, after ending almost half a century of integration with its closest neighbours and making its historic departure from the European Union.
With its exit at midnight Brussels time (7am Singapore time), Britain becomes the first country to leave the 28-member bloc and will go it alone for the first time since 1973.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has backed Brexit since the 2016 referendum vote to leave that triggered bitterness and division, but he has promised to lead the country to a bright, new future.
“Our job as the government, my job, is to bring this country together and take us forward,” he said in a statement to mark the historic occasion. “This is not an end but a beginning. This is the moment when the dawn breaks and the curtain goes up on a new act.”
Britons will be able to work in and trade freely with EU nations during an 11-month transition period till Dec 31, and vice versa, although the United Kingdom will no longer be represented in the bloc’s institutions.
But legally, Britain is out – with no easy way back. And while the exit terms have been agreed, it must still strike a deal on future relations with the EU, its largest trading partner, which sets out its negotiating position on Monday.
“We want to have the best possible relationship with the United Kingdom, but it will never be as good as membership,” European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen told reporters yesterday. “Our experience has taught us that strength does not lie in splendid isolation, but in our unique union.”
In an op-ed published by the European media, Dr von der Leyen and other EU leaders warned Britain that it cannot expect “the highest-quality access to the single market” unless it adopts EU standards on the environment, workers’ rights, tax and state aid. “Without being a member, you cannot retain the benefits of membership,” they wrote.
Mr Steffen Seibert, spokesman for German Chancellor Angela Merkel, said Britain’s exit from the EU marks a “sea change” for the bloc and Berlin hopes Britain will continue to be a “close partner and friend”.
From today, Britain’s officials will have restricted access to EU offices and internal communications. Diplomats of the EU-27 were reminded not to share information with Britain freely any more.
In most other respects, however, there will be no immediate change.
The transition period gives citizens and businesses time to adapt while the two sides try to hammer out a new relationship. Trade, fishing rights, security and a raft of other issues are up for discussion.
Although the aim is to achieve a “zero tariff, zero quota” trade deal, the EU says that would also require “zero dumping”. It will insist that Britain remain aligned on standards and regulations to guarantee fair competition, but London has said it will not be “a rule-taker” and may choose to diverge.
A group of Brexit Party members of the European Parliament left the building in Brussels in high spirits yesterday, cheering and waving Union Jack flags as a kilted Scottish bagpiper played. “We celebrate the beginning of our independence,” Ms Ann Widdecombe told onlookers.
In contrast, opposition Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said: “Britain’s place in the world will change. The question is what direction we now take.
“We can build a truly internationalist, diverse and outward-looking Britain. Or we can turn inwards, and trade our principles, rights and standards to secure hastily arranged, one-sided, race-to-the-bottom trade deals with (United States President) Donald Trump and others.”
Mr Johnson has given himself just 11 months to negotiate a new EU partnership, covering everything from trade to security cooperation.
He will set out his plans in a speech on Monday but Brussels has already warned he must either limit his ambitions or ask for more time.
Mr Johnson also wants a trade deal with the US, where Mr Trump is a huge supporter of Brexit.