In a historic moment, the UK was no longer be a member of the European Union after 11pm Greenwich Mean Time on Friday, January 31, 2020. Brexit was originally meant to happen on March 29, 2019, but the deadline was delayed twice after MPs rejected the deal negotiated by Theresa May, the prime minister at the time.

"A new dawn for Europe," leaders of the European Union now wrote in a joint article. "This is the moment when the dawn breaks," came Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s echo from across the newly raised dividing line.

It was left to the dispassionate BBC to cut short the bathos: "Brexit is far from ‘done’," the Beeb coldly said, before listing the many travails still to come, most notably the negotiations that now begin with the European Union on the details of Britain’s future relationship with the continent.

Both sides still need to decide what this will look like, and during the 11-month transition period the UK will continue to follow all of the EU's rules and its trading relationship will remain the same.

If a new one cannot be agreed in time, then the UK faces the prospect of having to trade with no deal in place. That would mean tariffs on UK goods travelling to the EU and other trade barriers.

Aside from trade, many other aspects of the future UK-EU relationship will also need to be decided. For example, law enforcement, data sharing and security, aviation standards and safety, access to fishing waters, supplies of electricity and gas, and licensing and regulation of medicines.

Johnson has promised not to seek an extension of the December 31, 2020, deadline, which he could, though a less complex trade deal between the EU and Canada took seven years to finish. To discourage other of the 27 members from exiting, the EU is not likely to cut Britain much slack on EU standards and rules in their trade.

Britain will now also reach across the Atlantic to what President Trump has held out as a "very big trade deal, bigger than we’ve ever had with the UK", which Johnson has touted as a benefit of quitting the European Union. That, too, could prove a disappointment.

A former British ambassador to Washington, Kim Darroch – who resigned last July after his derogatory comments about Trump leaked out – was among those who noted in interviews that the President is not given to generous trade concessions, least of all in an election year.

In the same European Parliament session at which Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the EU Commission, promised departing British delegates, "We will always love you, and we will never be far", Aileen McLeod of the Scottish National Party spoke of Scotland’s anger over being "dragged" out of the union and asked that the members "leave a light on" for Scotland, where Brexit has fuelled demands for a new referendum on independence.

Scotland's First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, has also said Brexit is a "pivotal moment" for Scotland and the UK.

Still, the fact is that after 47 years in the bloc, Britain is officially out, and there is no going back, at least not in the foreseeable future. The UK joined in 1973 (when it was known as the European Economic Community) and it is the first member state to withdraw.

For many Britons, the long and bitter debate had been less about economics and politics than about identity. Those who fought to leave fought for what they saw as lost sovereignty, often tinged with a sense of lost empire; those who fought to stay saw the Union as post-imperial Britain’s place in the future, joined with the rest of Europe in values, standards and security.

When the referendum on whether to leave was held in the UK in June 2016, 17.4 million people opted for "Brexit". This gave the Leave side 52%, compared with 48% for Remain.

In the end, after nearly three years of uncertainty and bitterness, voters elected Boris Johnson out of exhaustion, to get it over with, not because they had reached agreement.

Headlines reflected the divide. Pro-Brexit tabloids joined in gleeful celebration: "OUR TIME HAS COME", proclaimed The Sun, offering a "free giant Brexit poster"; "YES, WE DID IT!" cheered The Daily Express in what it described as a historic edition; "Free and independent once more after 47 years" declared The Daily Mail over a photograph of the White Cliffs of Dover. Those same cliffs featured on the cover of The Guardian, a strong advocate of staying in the EU, over a crumbling sandcastle surmounted by a tiny British flag. The headline: "Small island".

Trying to reconcile these divergent worldviews will be the main task of coming years, as Johnson appeared to recognise when he declared in a speech to the nation on January 31 evening: "Our job as the government, my job, is to bring this country together now and take us forward. ... This is not an end but a beginning."

For the moment, what "forward" meant remained unclear. For at least the coming years not much would change in economic, trade and practical terms, but many potential battles loomed over the shape of the future relationship with Europe, America and the rest of the world.


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