With little fanfare, Britain left the European Union on Friday after 47 years of membership, taking a leap into the unknown in a historic blow to the bloc.
The U.K.’s departure became official at 11 p.m. (local time), midnight in Brussels, where the EU is headquartered. Thousands of enthusiastic Brexit supporters gathered outside Britain’s Parliament to welcome the moment they’d longed for since Britain’s 52%-48% vote in June 2016 to walk away from the club it had joined in 1973. The flag-waving crowd erupted in cheers as Big Ben bonged 11 times — on a recording. Parliament’s real bell has been silenced for repairs.
In a message from nearby 10 Downing St., Prime Minister Boris Johnson called Britain’s departure “a moment of real national renewal and change.”
But many Britons mourned the loss of their EU identity, and some marked the passing with tearful vigils. There was also sadness in Brussels as British flags were quietly removed from the bloc’s many buildings.
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.
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 on Saturday, they will notice very little change. The U.K. and the EU have given themselves an 11-month “transition period” — in which the U.K. will continue to follow the bloc’s rules — to strike new agreements on trade, security and a host of other areas.
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.
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 media address. “But it is a day that must also lead us to do things differently.”
He insisted that European citizens need a united Europe “more than ever,” to defend their interests in the face of China and the United States, to cope with climate change and migration and technological upheaval.
In the many EU buildings of Brussels on Friday, British flags were quietly lowered, folded and taken away. This is the first time a country has left the EU, and many in the bloc rued the day. EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen lamented that “as the sun rises tomorrow, a new chapter for our union of 27 will start.”
But she warned Brexit day would mark a major loss for the U.K. and said the island nation was heading for a lonelier existence.
“Strength does not lie in splendid isolation, but in our unique union,” she said.
Johnson insisted post-Brexit Britain would be “simultaneously a great European power and truly global in our range and ambitions.”
“We want this to be the beginning of a new era of friendly cooperation between the EU and an energetic Britain,” Johnson said in a pre-recorded address to the country broadcast an hour before Britain’s exit.
Johnson is a Brexit enthusiast, but he knows many Britons aren’t, and his Conservative government sought to mark the moment with quiet dignity.
Britain’s journey to Brexit has been long, rocky — and far from over.
The U.K. was never a wholehearted EU member, but actually leaving the bloc was long considered a fringe idea. It gradually gained strength within the Conservative Party, which has a wing of fierce “euroskeptics” — opponents of EU membership. Former Prime Minister David Cameron eventually agreed to hold a referendum, saying he wanted to settle the issue once and for all.
It hasn’t worked out that way. Since the 2016 vote, the U.K. has held fractious negotiations with the EU that finally, late last year, secured a deal on divorce terms. But Britain is leaving the bloc arguably as divided as it was on referendum day.
By and large, Britain’s big cities voted to stay in the EU, while small towns voted to leave. England and Wales backed Brexit, while Northern Ireland and Scotland voted to remain.
London, which is home to more than 1 million EU citizens, also voted by a wide margin to stay in the bloc.
Mayor Sadiq Khan said he was “heartbroken” about Brexit. But he insisted London would remain the city that welcomed all, regardless of “the color of your skin, the color of your flag, the color of your passport.”
Negotiations between Britain and the EU on their new relationship are due to start in earnest in March, and the early signs are not encouraging. The EU says Britain can’t have full access to the EU’s single market unless it follows the bloc’s rules, but Britain insists it will not agree to follow an EU rule book in return for unfettered trade.
With Johnson adamant he won’t extend the transition period beyond Dec. 31, months of uncertainty and acrimony lie ahead.