Britain has finally severed its turbulent half-century partnership with Europe, quitting the EU single market and customs union and going its own way four-and-a-half years after its shock vote to leave the bloc.
Brexit, which has dominated politics on both sides of the Channel since 2016, became a reality as Big Ben struck 11:00 pm (2300 GMT) in London, just as most of mainland Europe ushered in 2021.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson, the figurehead of the "Leave" campaign, described it as an "amazing moment" for the country and played up his upbeat narrative of a "Global Britain" unshackled from rules set in Brussels.
He vowed that post-Brexit Britain, despite being battered by a surge in coronavirus cases, would be 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."
Legally, Britain left the European Union on January 31 but has been in a standstill transition period during fractious talks to secure a free-trade agreement with Brussels, which was finally clinched on Christmas Eve.
Now the transition is over, EU rules no longer apply. The immediate consequence is an end to the free movement of more than 500 million people between Britain and the 27 EU states.
Customs border checks return for the first time in decades, and despite the free-trade deal allowing Britain continued access to Europe's nearly 450 million consumers, queues and disruption from additional paperwork are expected.
Brexit a product of ‘lies and false promises’, Macron says https://t.co/LEYHvGhlnU— The Independent (@Independent) January 1, 2021
'A bit of a headache'
At Eurotunnel in Calais, French officials began implementing the new formalities at midnight on the dot, starting with a truck coming from Romania carrying post and parcels.
Driver Toma Moise, 62, said being the first subjected to the new rules was a "privilege," as Calais Mayor Natacha Bouchart symbolically waved him through to the cross-Channel freight train.
Matt Smith, managing director of HSF Logistics, which ships mainly fresh meat and chilled goods between Britain and Europe, said he was sending around 15 truckloads to the EU on New Year's Eve ahead of the changes.
The government's new post-Brexit customs systems are largely untested and Smith was doubtful how his business would fare with the new paperwork.
"We're not too sure to be honest, it seems to be a bit of a headache," he told AFP. "There'll be delays along the line at some stage."
Britain is the first member state to leave the EU, which was set up to forge unity after the horrors of World War II.
The 2016 referendum opened up abiding wounds between Leavers and Remainers, and ushered in years of political paralysis before Johnson took power last year, vowing to chart a future for Britain built on scientific innovation and new partnerships across the seas.
A parliamentary debate on Wednesday to ratify the trade deal was marked by elegiac farewells from pro-EU lawmakers, and warnings of disruption as Britain dismantles the intricate network of ties built since it joined the EU's forerunner in 1973.
Anxious wait for financial services
While the EU tariff- and quota-free trade deal averted potential business chaos in the immediate future, the divorce will play out in many practical ways.
Changes apply to everything from pet passports, to how long Britons can visit their holiday homes on the continent and an end to British involvement in a student exchange programme.
Potential disruption at ports is stoking fears of food and medicine shortages, as well as delays to holidaymakers and business travellers used to seamless travel in the EU.
British fishermen are disgruntled at a compromise to allow continued access for EU boats in British waters.
Spot on - Brexit is a tragic national error— Anna Soubry (@Anna_Soubry) January 1, 2021
“...at least the EU can no longer be blamed for our continuing tensions, inequalities and failures of governance.” https://t.co/47hiwuK2ZU
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 agreement.
In a landmark deal sealed just hours before 2300 GMT, the tiny British territory of Gibraltar will become part of Europe's passport-free zone to keep movement fluid on its border with Spain.
'Keep the light on'
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.
Scotland's pro-EU First Minister Nicola Sturgeon promised in a tweet: "Scotland will be back soon, Europe. Keep the light on."
But opinion polls indicate that most Britons, on both sides of the referendum divide, want to move on and are far more worried about the worsening coronavirus pandemic, which has claimed 73,500 lives.
Johnson, who himself is among nearly 2.5 million struck down by the virus, warned of tough times ahead because of a resurgence of Covid-19 infections but said a UK-developed vaccine offered grounds for hope.
'Friend and ally'
"It's going to be better," said Maureen Martin, from the port of Dover that lies across the Channel from France. "We need to govern ourselves and be our own bosses."
Britain is a financial and diplomatic big-hitter and a major NATO power with a permanent seat on the UN Security Council and in the G7 grouping of the world's richest economies.
The EU has now lost 66 million people and an economy worth $2.85 trillion, and there is regret that Britain wanted out.
French President Emmanuel Macron said Britain will remain "our friend and ally" but lamented that Brexit was the fruit of "a lot of lies and false promises."
Britain's chief trade negotiator David Frost tweeted: "Britain has just become a fully independent country again – deciding our own affairs for ourselves."
But his EU opposite number, Michel Barnier, was more downbeat. "No one has been able to show me the added value of Brexit," he told RTL radio.
"It's a divorce... you can't celebrate a divorce."
Boarding a Eurostar train in Paris as the Brexit hour approached, Francois Graffin, 59, said he was going to pack up his life in London and return to live in France.
"It breaks my heart," he said.
Can't blame the EU
In Britain, Brexit has been the culmination of years of anti-Brussels agitation as the union morphed from a trading community to a more ambitious political project.
However, the 2016 referendum never spelt out what shape Brexit should take.
Johnson's predecessor Theresa May repeatedly failed to drive through a "soft" separation that would have kept Britain largely bound to the EU.
But he drove a much harder bargain, to the profound unease of UK businesses and opposition parties.
Now after months of stormy negotiations that were repeatedly upended by the pandemic, Brussels, too, is keen to move on.
But UK lawmaker Chris Hazzard, from the Irish republican Sinn Fein party, said Brexit was far from over.
"When all the bluster dies down... it will become depressingly clear that this trade deal is... the beginning of a new trading relationship built on permanent negotiation, disputes and recriminations," he warned.
The Daily Telegraph, where Johnson made his name as a Brussels-bashing Europe correspondent, said the government faced a new reality shorn of the EU bogeyman.
"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.
UK casts off into the Brexit unknown
For five years, the frenzied gyrations of the Brexit crisis dominated European affairs, haunted the sterling markets and tarnished the United Kingdom's reputation as a confident pillar of Western economic and political stability.
After years of Brexit vitriol, one of the most significant events in European history since the 1991 fall of the Soviet Union passed with little fanfare: The United Kingdom slipped away, serenaded by the silence of the Covid-19 crisis.
Supporters cast Brexit as the dawn of a newly independent "global Britain", but it has weakened the bonds that bind England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland into a $3 trillion economy.
"This is an amazing moment for this country," Prime Minister Johnson, 56, said in his New Year's Eve message. "We have our freedom in our hands and it is up to us to make the most of it."
As EU leaders and citizens bade farewell, Johnson said there would be no bonfire of regulations to build a "bargain basement Dickensian Britain" and that the country would remain the "quintessential European civilisation."
But Johnson, the face of the Brexit campaign, has been short on detail about what he wants to build with Britain's "independence" – or how to do it while borrowing record amounts to pay for the Covid-19 crisis.
His 80-year-old father, Stanley Johnson, who voted to remain in 2016, said he is in the process of applying for a French passport.
In the June 23, 2016, referendum, 17.4 million voters, or 52 percent, backed Brexit while 16.1 million, or 48 percent, backed staying in the bloc. Few have changed their minds since. England and Wales voted out but Scotland and Northern Ireland voted in.
The referendum showed a United Kingdom divided about much more than the European Union, and fuelled soul searching about everything from secession and immigration to capitalism, the legacy of empire and what it now means to be British.
Leaving was once the far-fetched dream of a motley crew of “eurosceptics” on the fringes of British politics: the UK joined in 1973 as “the sick man of Europe” and two decades ago British leaders were arguing about whether to join the euro.
It never did.
But the turmoil of the euro zone crisis, attempts to integrate the EU further, fears about mass immigration and discontent with leaders in London helped Brexiteers win the referendum with a message of patriotic, if vague, hope.
"We see a global future for ourselves," said Johnson who won power in 2019 and, against the odds, clinched a Brexit divorce treaty and a trade deal, as well as the biggest Conservative majority since Margaret Thatcher, in the 2019 election.
Supporters see Brexit as an escape from a doomed Franco-German project that has stagnated while the United States and China surged ahead.
Opponents say Brexit will weaken the West, further reduce Britain’s global clout, make people poorer and lessen its cosmopolitanism.
When the Great Bell known as Big Ben tolled 11 through a scaffold, there were few outward displays of emotion in Britain as gatherings are banned under coronavirus pandemic restrictions.
After the United Kingdom leaves the Single Market or the Customs Union, there is almost certain to be some disruption at borders.
More red tape means more cost for those importing and exporting goods across the EU-UK border.
After haggling over a trade deal for months, the British government published 70 pages of case studies just hours before its departure advising companies on what rules they would have to follow at the new UK-EU border.
The Port of Dover expects volumes to drop off in early January. The most worrisome period, it says, will be in mid- to late January when volumes pick up again.
Support for Scottish independence has risen, partly due to Brexit and partly due to Covid-19, threatening the 300-year-old political union between England and Scotland.
Scottish leader Nicola Sturgeon has said an independence referendum should take place in the earlier part of the devolved parliament's next term, which begins next year.
"Scotland will be back soon, Europe. Keep the light on," Sturgeon said.
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