The United Kingdom left the European Union at the stroke of 11pm GMT — midnight in Brussels — on Friday, ending almost half a century of membership of Europe’s alliance of nations and heralding what prime minister Boris Johnson called “the dawn of a new era”.
After three and a half years of bitter division and political turmoil since the vote to leave the EU at the 2016 referendum, a countdown clock was projected onto Downing Street to mark Britain’s formal departure from the bloc of 27 remaining countries.
Addressing the nation in a pre-recorded message after a cabinet meeting in Sunderland, Johnson expressed his desire to unite the UK, proclaiming: “This is not an end but a beginning”.
“Our job as the government — my job — is to bring this country together and take us forward,” he said. “This is the moment when the dawn breaks and the curtain goes up on a new act. It is a moment of real national renewal and change.
“This is the dawn of a new era in which we no longer accept that your life chances — your family’s life chances — should depend on which part of the country you grow up in.”
Brexit supporters kept their celebrations relatively low-key, with the union jack flown on flagpoles in Parliament Square, government buildings around Whitehall lit up, and members of the Vote Leave campaign holding a private party at the Chelsea mansion of donor Jon Moynihan.
Prominent Remain campaigners expressed their sadness at Britain’s departure, telling BuzzFeed News they were holding private vigils and dinners with friends to commiserate.
Brussels, which illuminated its main square in union jack colours on Thursday in a heartfelt goodbye to the UK, signalled that it was also “a new dawn for Europe”.
The former president of the European Council, Donald Tusk, sent a message of goodwill:
US ambassador to the UK Robert W Johnson said: “President Donald J. Trump has long supported the United Kingdom’s sovereign decision to withdraw from the European Union. Now that the UK is back in control of its own trade policy, we look forward to achieving a broad Free Trade Agreement that will increase prosperity and create jobs in both our countries.”
The presidents of the three main EU institutions — Charles Michel, David Sassoli, and Ursula von der Leyen — said in a joint statement that it was “a day of reflection and mixed emotions”.
“Our thoughts are with all of those who have helped to make the European Union what it is today. Those who are concerned about their future or disappointed to see the UK leave. Those British members of our institutions who helped shape policies that made lives better for millions of Europeans,” they said.
“We will think of the UK and its people, their creativity, ingenuity, culture, and traditions, that have been a vital part of our Union’s tapestry.”
In a letter to Steve Barclay, the Brexit secretary whose job will now be abolished, Johnson thanked him for his “hard work and support”.
Britain will now enter an 11-month “transition period” lasting until Dec. 31, during which little will change — with the country effectively remaining a part of the EU’s single market and customs union and maintaining freedom of movement.
During that time, British and European negotiators will seek to strike a new free trade agreement that will ultimately determine whether the UK economy remains closely aligned to the bloc long-term, or diverges significantly on its rules and regulations.
The EU’s presidents spelt out the high stakes of the forthcoming negotiations on Friday. “How close that partnership will be depends on decisions that are still to be taken. Because every choice has a consequence,” they said.
“Without the free movement of people, there can be no free movement of capital, goods and services. Without a level playing field on environment, labour, taxation and state aid, there cannot be the highest quality access to the single market. Without being a member, you cannot retain the benefits of membership.”
Cabinet minister and Vote Leave campaigner Michael Gove admitted on Friday morning that the government’s plan for a Canada-style loose trading arrangement with the EU would mean businesses face greater “bureaucratic processes”.
He told the BBC: “We want trade to be as frictionless as possible but the EU is clear that you can only have fully frictionless trade if you accept all their rules, you accept all their laws, you are subordinate to their judges, you are subordinate to their political structures.”
At a speech in Edinburgh, the Scottish National Party leader Nicola Sturgeon warned that Brexit was “a pivotal moment for the UK and Scotland”.
She said that “here in Scotland, given that it is happening against the will of the vast majority of us, that sadness will be tinged with anger” and said she would pursue a “legal and legitimate” route to a second Scottish independence referendum.
At 11pm, the thousands of people packed into Parliament Square marked the occasion with cheers and confetti cannons. Groups cheered, hugged each other, and broke into choruses of “God Save the Queen” as the recorded chimes of Big Ben rung out.
Speaking to BuzzFeed News, Nadia, who did not want to give her full name, said: “I’m here because we’ve finally got the Brexit people voted for. It’s friendly, if you look around you’ll see a lot of young people, and I’ve been very impressed by that.”
When asked how she felt about Britain finally leaving the EU, she said: “I hope it’s a good thing. Let’s see what happens.”
Lynn Thatcher, a UKIP campaigner who travelled from south-west London, said: “it’s so exciting, it’s a historical moment. It’s a good feeling because we’ve worked hard for it. We’ve campaigned for it for years.
“For the last three, I thought it was not going to happen, but now it’s actually happened, we’re elated.”
Her friend Carol Ward added: “There’s a brilliant atmosphere. It was lovely to hear Big Ben’s bongs even though it wasn’t real — it was a recording.”
George Goddard and Jordan Dilworth are both Remainers, but they said they wanted to come down to see history being made. “It’s still a historic moment,” Dilworth told BuzzFeed News. “We just wanted to see it.”
“I’m really surprised by the passion,” Goddard added. “I didn’t expect this level of passion. I wasn’t expecting this turnout. It does feel like a celebration.”
Alex Wickham is a senior reporter with BuzzFeed News and is based in London.
Contact Alex Wickham at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Hannah Al-Othman is a political correspondent for BuzzFeed News and is based in London.
Contact Hannah Al-Othman at email@example.com.
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