As Brexit finally happens, Britons mark their moment of freedom while obeying stay-at-home orders
By William Booth, Michael Birnbaum and Karla Adam,
Tolga Akmen AFP/Getty Images
LONDON — After years of buildup to Brexit, a drama that obsessed and divided a nation, Britain was poised to leave the European Union on Thursday night, not with a bang but with a recorded New Year’s Eve light show on the BBC.
With a newly emergent, highly transmissible variant of the coronavirus surging, even the most zealous Brexiteers were likely to mark the launch of “Global Britain” while tucked safely indoors, under the government’s “Tier 4” stay-at-home orders, which now apply to 75 percent of the population of England, alongside tough measures in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.
British health officials begged people not to have parties. “Covid loves a crowd,” they warned.
Finally free from Brussels bureaucrats, post-Brexit Britons aren’t free to go to the pub, because eateries and taverns are closed. And while they have “taken back control” of their borders, Britons find themselves facing travel restrictions from dozens of countries hoping to keep the coronavirus variant out.
Britain officially — on paper — left the European Union on Jan. 31, and there was plenty of Union Jack waving in Parliament Square that night. But not much changed during the 11-month transition period that followed. The dramatic shift in the relationship between Britain and Europe — the culmination of a fight that has brought down multiple prime ministers — happens on Thursday at 11 p.m. London time, midnight in Brussels, when Britain leaves the bloc it helped establish almost five decades ago.
A border sign welcomes passengers arriving at Heathrow Airport in west London on Dec. 31.
On Thursday evening, Prime Minister Boris Johnson released a short video in which he acknowledged that many people “will be only too happy to say goodbye to the grimness of 2020,” the year in which “the government was forced to tell people how to live their lives, how long to wash their hands, how many households could meet together.”
Johnson praised health-care workers and other essential workers, and he singled out the scientists “from the laboratories of Oxford” who developed the newly approved homegrown coronavirus vaccine that will start going into people’s arms Monday.
The prime minister did not mention “Brexit” — he rarely does anymore. He alluded only to Britain’s departure, to say that in 2021 the country will be “free to do trade deals around the world” and “free to do things differently, and if necessary better, than our friends in the E.U.”
After nine months of negotiation, British and E.U. negotiators hammered out a trade deal — with no tariffs and no quotas — on Christmas Eve, which was passed into law in a marathon 15-hour session of Parliament here on Wednesday.
Still, the back-and-forth over Brexit continued on Twitter, which was buzzing Thursday over the fact that Nigel Farage, Britain’s most avid Brexit backer, was not named among the 1,123 in the Queen’s New Year Honours List 2021, which “recognizes the achievements of a wide range of extraordinary people,” and allows them to be called “Sir” or “Dame.”
Farage fans said their man was dissed after playing a formidable role in pushing Brexit into mainstream British politics. Former prime minister David Cameron once dismissed Farage’s U.K. Independence Party as “fruitcakes and loonies and closet racists, mostly.” But the 2016 Brexit referendum endorsed Farage’s vision while ending Cameron’s political career.
The referendum left Britons divided, adding to the political lexicon the new descriptors “remainers” and “leavers.” People complained of “Brexit fatigue” even as record numbers of people tuned in to watch Brexit debates on Parliamentlive.tv. British children learned to imitate now-former House of Commons speaker John Bercow, shouting “Order! Order!”
The debate feels slightly passe now, overwhelmed by the pandemic and one of the highest covid-19 death tolls in the world.
A spokeswoman for the prime minister said there would be no official celebration of Brexit.
Parliament announced that Big Ben would ring at midnight to celebrate the New Year.
The Big Ben is expected to ring at midnight to celebrate the New Year.
Big Ben — which is actually the name of the bell that resides inside the Elizabeth Tower at the Palace of Westminster — has largely been silent since 2017, when major restoration work started on the tower. But its ringing is traditionally the climactic moment on New Year’s Eve. And it could toll even if coronavirus restrictions meant the annual fireworks display had been replaced by a recorded televised broadcast of drones flying over the River Thames.
British media reported that the bell also would be “tested” at 11 p.m., which many took as a sly nod to Brexit. On social media, some said the bongs would be the sound of “freedom,” but others spoke of the sound of “mourning.”
Edward Leigh, a Conservative lawmaker, tweeted: “Big Ben bongs for Brexit. Deal done. Well done.” Another user tweeted, “Hilarious. Let them have their moment, they’ve earned it. Then let’s never speak of it again.”
On the other side of the English Channel, Europe also faced a glum New Year’s Eve. German Health Minister Jens Spahn said the country would have the “quietest New Year’s Eve” in years, while France put 100,000 police on the streets to enforce a nationwide curfew, according to the BBC.
E.U. policymakers, weighed down by pandemic worries and a string of other priorities, generally appeared relieved to be done with the chapter of Britain’s half-in, half-out membership.
Some acknowledged that they had tried to make the departure a bit painful for Britain, so other countries would not be tempted to follow Britons out the door.
“With Brexit, I think that Britain is punishing itself,” French Secretary of State for Europe Clément Beaune told the LCI broadcaster Thursday. “We haven’t punished anybody, but it was also necessary to show the price to pay of leaving.”
Others were wistful.
“Dear Britain, in your absence, we will look after the single market you did so much to build! We may not share your definition of sovereignty, but we part as friends & allies,” tweeted Guy Verhofstadt, a Belgian lawmaker in the European Parliament who helped lead Brexit issues in that legislature.
An empty Shaftesbury Avenue on New Year’s Eve in London under coronavirus restrictions.
Britain is sailing out of the E.U. with fewer ties to its former partners than some had originally envisioned — leaving questions about whether anything could have been done differently.
“Maybe the original mistake was not in drawing breath after the referendum and saying, ‘Okay, let’s now have a big informal consultation’ … of all the nations of the United Kingdom and the business community, to work out a blueprint of what the U.K. wanted, and then take that to Brussels,” said Jonathan Faull, who led the European Commission’s Brexit task force before the 2016 referendum and was the commission’s senior British official when he retired after the Brexit decision.
Europe, meanwhile, confronted with a negotiation partner whose demands were at times incoherent or contradictory, sometimes seemed unsure how to proceed, ultimately setting out a timetable and negotiation structure that nudged Britain toward a more complete departure than many E.U. members also desired.
“The E.U. thinks of the rest of Europe as potential members. That’s always the way it has dealt with the other European countries, a sort of messianic view that everybody is going to see the light and one day join the European project,” Faull said. “The idea that a member state, which was a member, can just leave, there was no precedent. It was a blank sheet of paper.”
Birnbaum reported from Riga, Latvia.