UK Ends Long Brexit Journey With Economic Break From EU

UK Ends Long Brexit Journey With Economic Break From EU
British people living in Brussels who oppose Brexit hold a candlelit vigil outside the British embassy as the transition period comes to an end in Brussels, Belgium, on Dec. 31, 2020. (Johanna Geron/Reuters)
Mimi Nguyen Ly
Alexander Zhang

The United Kingdom completed its split from the European Union on Thursday.

Britain formally exited the EU’s single market and customs union as the transition period expired at 23:00 GMT, and began trading with the 27-member political and economic bloc under the new free trade agreement reached on Christmas Eve.

The split comes 11 months after the UK formally left the EU on Jan. 31, 2020—three and a half years after the UK public voted to leave the EU in a 2016 referendum.

“Britain has just become a fully independent country again—deciding our own affairs for ourselves,” said David Frost, the UK’s chief Brexit negotiator.

“We have a great future before us. Now we can build a better country for us all,” he wrote on Twitter.

In his New Year message, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said the UK is now “free to do things differently, and if necessary better, than our friends in the EU.”

“This is an amazing moment for this country. We have our freedom in our hands, and it is up to us to make the most of it,” he said.

Johnson stressed national unity in his speech, saying he believes “it will be the overwhelming instinct of the people of this country to come together as one United Kingdom—England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland working together to express our values around the world.”

But Brexit has put the union under significant strain. Though the UK as a whole voted to leave the EU by 52 to 48 percent in the 2016 referendum, both Scotland and Northern Ireland voted to remain.

On Wednesday, when the British Parliament voted overwhelmingly to approve the Brexit trade deal, the regional assemblies of Scotland and Northern Ireland both voted to reject the deal, saying Brexit is against the will of the people they represent.

“Scotland will be back soon, Europe. Keep the light on,” Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, who opposes Brexit and favours Scottish independence from the UK, said in a Twitter post on Thursday night.

Britain’s main opposition Labour Party voted for the deal, but said it did so only to prevent a no-deal Brexit. Labour Party leader Keir Starmer had said prior to the parliamentary vote that the deal is a “thin agreement” that doesn’t provide adequate protection to British businesses and workers.

French president Emmanuel Macron expressed regret over the situation in his traditional New Year’s address, saying, “The United Kingdom remains our neighbor but also our friend and ally. This choice of leaving Europe, this Brexit, was the child of European malaise and lots of lies and false promises.”

France’s European affairs minister, Clément Beaune, said the promises made by Brexiteers—“a sort of total freedom, a lack of restrictions, of influence—I think will not happen.”

The new arrangement enables Britain and the EU to continue tariff-free trade in goods. Until now, annual trade between the two sides amount to some 660 billion pounds ($894 billion).

But companies will face new costs and paperwork, including customs declarations and border checks under the 1,200-page trade deal.

The British government announced that “the border systems and infrastructure we need are in place, and we are ready for the UK’s new start.”

The deal also does not cover Britain’s much larger and influential finance sector. The services sector, which makes up 80 percent of Britain’s economy, does not know what the rules will be for business with the EU in 2021—many of the details have yet to be hammered out. Months and years of further discussion and argument over everything from fair competition to fish quotas lie ahead as Britain and the EU settle into their new relationship.

Britons and EU citizens have lost the automatic right to live and work in the others' territory and have to follow immigration rules and obtain work visas. Tourists will not need visas for short trips, but Britons visiting the continent face other administrative formalities from travel insurance to pet paperwork.

Lily Zhou and The Associated Press contributed to this report.