Britons counted down the hours yesterday to their country’s formal departure from the European Union — some joyous, some sad, many just hopeful the divorce would mark the end of an anguished chapter in their country’s history.
The United Kingdom officially departed the EU at 11pm local time, midnight in Brussels. The move comes three-and-a years after the country voted by a margin of 52 percent to 48 percent to walk away from the club that it had joined in 1973.
Throughout the day, bands of ardent Brexit backers draped in Union Jack flags gathered outside Parliament in London to celebrate, their numbers growing and volume increasing as the time grew closer. Nearby, pro-Europeans waving the bloc’s blue and yellow flag came to commiserate.
Whether Brexit makes Britain a proud nation that has reclaimed its sovereignty, or a diminished presence in Europe and the world, will be debated for years to come.
The now 27-member EU will have to bounce back from one of its biggest setbacks in its 62-year history to confront an ever more complicated world as its former member becomes a competitor, just across the English Channel.
While Britain’s exit is a historic moment, it only marks the end of the first stage of the Brexit saga. When Britons wake up today, they will notice very little change. The UK and the EU have given themselves an 11-month “transition period” — in which Britain will continue to follow the bloc’s rules — to strike new agreements on trade, security and a host of other areas.
French President Emmanuel Macron called Brexit a “historic alarm signal” that should force the EU to improve itself.
“It’s a sad day, let’s not hide it,” he said in a televised address. “But it is a day that must also lead us to do things differently.”
Inside the EU Council headquarters in Brussels, Britain’s flag was quietly removed from the group of member flags, a moment that was not observed by any of the bloc’s leaders. An official simply folded it and walked away.
The EU flag and Union Jack were also lowered outside Britain’s EU office. Starting today, it will become an Embassy, with just the British flag flying.
It’s the first time a country has left the EU, and many in the bloc rued the day. In Brussels, EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen lamented that “as the sun rises tomorrow a new chapter for our union of 27 will start.”
Newspapers across the continent were marking the departure with headlines of “Adieu to Europe” and “Bye-Bye!” next to a Union Jack flag.
The government market the moment in what it hoped was a dignified, nontriumphalist fashion, with red, white and blue lights illuminating government buildings and a countdown clock projected onto the prime minister’s Downing Street residence.
However, many Brexiteers did not echo that tone, with reports of EU flags being burnt at celebrations in London. Others held more raucous celebrations – archBrexiteer Nigel Farage and his supporters gathered for patriotic songs and speeches in London’s Parliament Square.
Candlelit vigils were being held in several Scottish cities, and the EU flag was not to be lowered outside the Scottish Parliament last night. Lawmakers there voted to keep it as a symbol of their opposition to Brexit.