Britain began a new year and a life outside Europe on Friday, after leaving the bloc’s trade rules for the internal market to go it alone for the first time in almost half a century.
Brexit, which has dominated politics on both sides of the Channel since 2016, became a reality an hour before midnight and ended Britain’s 48-year obligation to comply with Brussels’ rules.
Free movement of over 500 million people between the UK and the 27 EU member states ended.
Stricter customs controls reappeared for the first time in decades, despite the difficulty of mediating a duty- and quota-free trade agreement.
The New Year’s newspapers reflected the historic yet deeply divisive change, which will have repercussions for future generations.
The first photograph of the pro-Brexit Daily Express showed the White Cliffs of Dover – a lasting symbol of Britishness – with “Freedom” written on a Union flag.
“Our future. Our United Kingdom. Our destiny,” the headline said.
The independent EU independent was less confident: “The hook on the hook – or cut off?” asked it, reflecting great uncertainty in the path the country has now chosen.
When dawn broke in 2021, attention was drawn to Britain’s borders, especially the main ports in the Channel, to see if the end of seamless trade and travel would cause delays and disruption.
But with New Year’s Day a holiday followed by a weekend and the government announcing the gradual introduction of controls, few immediate problems were foreseen.
“The traffic forecast for the next few days is very light,” says John Keefe, spokesman for Eurotunnel, which transports goods, cars and buses under the Channel.
When the first ferry left the port of Dover in early Friday, truck drivers rolling into Calais for the first time had to deal with the new rules for transporting goods to and from mainland Europe.
The Road Haulage Association, an industry body, estimates that around 220 million new forms must now be completed each year to allow trade with EU countries, including permits to even drive on roads leading to ports such as Dover.
“This is a revolutionary change,” Rod McKenzie, director of public policy at RHA, told the Times this week.
Other practical changes include how long Britons can visit their holiday homes on the continent, to travel with pets and an end to British participation in the EU student program Erasmus.
Holidaymakers and business travelers who used to travel smoothly in the EU may suffer delays, although the fear that the British will have to obtain international permits to drive in Europe is avoided under a separate agreement.
British fishermen are unhappy with a compromise in the free trade agreement to allow continued access for EU boats in British waters, which has raised fears of collisions at sea.
The main financial sector is also facing an anxious wait to learn on what grounds it can continue to deal with Europe, after being largely left out of the trade agreement along with services in general, which account for 80% of the UK economy.
In Northern Ireland, the border with Ireland will be closely monitored to ensure that the movement is unlimited – the key to a 1998 peace agreement that ended 30 years of violence over British rule.
And in Scotland, which is an EU professional, Prime Minister Nicola Sturgeon gave a clear signal of a threatening struggle ahead of a new vote on independence.
“Scotland is coming back soon, Europe. Hold on to the light,” she tweeted.
‘Make the most of it’
Despite the uncertainty, Prime Minister Boris Johnson is optimistic and wrote in Friday’s Daily Telegraph that Brexit presented “opportunities unknown to modern memory”.
He said Britain had been given “a secure European home” since joining the then common market in 1973, but added that “the world has changed with all the recognition, and so has Britain.”
“We need to keep pace with developments on the west coast of America and in the Pearl River Delta,” he added.
“We need the Brexit-given chance to turbocharge the sectors in which we excel.”
The differences over Brexit, both political and social, remain deep and are likely to be for several years, despite a subdued end to the saga overshadowed by the global health crisis.
Opinion polls suggest that most Britons want to move on and are much more concerned about the worsening coronavirus pandemic, which has left more than 73,500 dead in the UK alone.
Johnson, who survived several days in intensive care with Covid in April last year, warned of tough times ahead but said a British-developed vaccine gave cause for hope.
But his desire for a prosperous, more globally focused Britain could still see a resurgence of the Brexit hassle, as the country finds out what its new terms of trade really mean.