Britain’s tumultuous 47-year membership of the EU ended at 11pm on Friday night, in an unprecedented blow to the process of postwar integration on the continent. “This is a deep cut for us all,” said German chancellor Angela Merkel.
Boris Johnson marked Brexit with a sober but optimistic address to the nation, claiming divorce was inevitable. “For all its strengths and its admirable qualities, the EU has evolved over 50 years in a direction that no longer suits this country,” he said.
Britain’s departure from the EU marks the first exit by any big country from the bloc and strips the 27-member union of one of its largest economies and most powerful military and diplomatic players. “This departure is a shock,” said French president Emmanuel Macron on Friday evening. “It’s a historic alarm signal that should echo in each of our countries, be understood across Europe and make us think.”
But Mr Johnson’s claim that Brexit would allow the government to “unleash the full potential of this brilliant country” was immediately countered by other European leaders who claimed the prime minister was inflicting self-harm on his nation.
Ursula von der Leyen, the European Commission president, said on Friday: “Our experience has taught us that strength does not lie in splendid isolation, but in our unique union.”
She wished the UK well, but vowed to fight for the EU’s interests in the coming negotiations over the future relationship, saying although the bloc wanted “the best possible relationship” with Britain, it would never be “as good as membership”.
Britons will wake up on February 1 and notice little practical change in the way they interact with the EU: a standstill transition period intended to run until the end of 2020 will mean that little will be altered in practical terms.
But the UK has lost all its formal representation in Brussels and is now a “third country”, seeking a trade deal from outside the room with a formidable negotiating partner. Ms Merkel said talks with the UK would be “the dominant theme of this year”.
She warned Mr Johnson that if he insisted on seeking a “Canada-style” trade deal with the EU, eliminating tariffs and quotas but allowing the UK to diverge from Brussels rules, there would be negative consequences for British business. “The more the UK will diverge from the conditions of the single market, the bigger the differences in our future relationship will be,” the German chancellor said.
Michael Gove, a leading British Brexiter and cabinet minister, told UK business leaders this week that the government was prepared to see costs and delays arise at the border as a price for regaining the UK’s sovereign right to set its own laws and regulations.
Mr Johnson told his cabinet, which held a meeting in the pro-Brexit northern city of Sunderland on Friday, that the UK would aim to have “80 per cent of our trade covered by free-trade agreements within three years”.
Later in the televised address, he will say: “For many people this is an astonishing moment of hope, a moment they thought would never come. And there are many, of course, who feel a sense of anxiety and loss.”
He added that many people were simply glad to see the whole saga coming to an end: “This is not just about some legal extrication. It is potentially a moment of real national renewal and change.”
Additional reporting by Victor Mallet in Paris