As of December 31, midnight (Brussels time), Britons will be considered in the EU as third country nationals. After four years of bitter discussions to get out of this politico-economic union, the country is now entering a new era in a context of economic crisis.
The British are opening a new chapter in their history. After half a century of European integration and four and a half years of a Brexit saga with many twists and turns, the United Kingdom is living, Thursday, December 31, its last hours at the rate of European rules in a context of deep crisis.
At 11 p.m. local time and GMT (midnight in Brussels), Brexit becomes reality for the country, which officially left the EU on January 31 but benefited from a transition period to cushion the shock.
While a broad free trade agreement will prevent too abrupt a breakup, the free movement of goods and people alike to cross the border unimpeded will end.
Exporters and importers will have to fill out customs declarations and risk seeing their goods slowed down at the border by controls. Financial firms, a major sector in London, will lose their automatic right to offer their services in the EU and will have to establish themselves there to continue operating. And UK universities will no longer be eligible for the Erasmus exchange program.
“This is not the end” but “the beginning of a wonderful relationship between the United Kingdom and our friends and partners of the European Union”, assured the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, great architect of this exit, after having initialed the document, raising both thumbs up in front of the lenses.
“The destiny of this great country now lies firmly in our hands,” he added later in the evening.
Before the deputies a few hours earlier, he had praised a “new chapter” for the United Kingdom and expressed the hope that this course would make it possible “to move on to something else”.
The task promises to be delicate: business circles have not hidden their fears about the consequences of this upheaval and the British are emerging from a divisive period.
Since the referendum of 23 June 2016, won at 51.9% by the “leave”, it has taken three Prime Ministers, hours of heated nightly parliamentary debates in Westminster and three postponements before the United Kingdom cast off for good.
Like this painful process, it was not until Christmas Eve that the laborious trade negotiations finally resulted in a free trade agreement, leaving only a few days to implement its 1,246 pages.
The text was signed on Wednesday by EU leaders and then, after a Royal Air Force flight, by Boris Johnson. The two houses of the British Parliament adopted it by an express review the same day but MEPs will not vote until the first quarter of 2021, requiring provisional application.
Much to the relief of entire swathes of highly connected economies, the EU is giving the UK duty-free and quota-free access to its market of 450 million consumers. But it provides, to avoid any unfair competition, sanctions and compensatory measures in the event of non-compliance with its rules on state aid, the environment, labor law and taxation.
Concerning fishing, a difficult subject until the last hours, the agreement provides for a transition period until June 2026, at the end of which European fishermen will have gradually given up 25% of their catches. A result that deeply disappointed British fishermen, spearheads of Brexit who hoped more from the promises of independence and regained sovereignty hammered out by Boris Johnson.
London and Brussels avoided in extremis the potentially devastating consequences of a “no deal”: long queues of trucks on the roads leading to cross-Channel ports, considerable costs for importers and respective waters closed to fishermen.
It is therefore a victory for Boris Johnson, triumphant at the polls on the promise to achieve Brexit, but since then put in difficulty by the Covid-19 pandemic. He did not need a new crisis: British hospitals are on the verge of rupture and contaminations with the new coronavirus continue to soar. Much of the population has been reconfigured, further clouding the outlook for an economy hit by its worst crisis in 300 years.
Beyond the pandemic, the challenges are considerable for the government of Boris Johnson, which has promised to give the United Kingdom a new place in the world, summed up by the slogan “Global Britain”.
However, he is preparing to lose a weighty ally with the departure of Donald Trump, a fervent supporter of Brexit replaced in the White House by Democrat Joe Biden, more Europhile.
Inside, he must bring together Britons who have torn apart over Brexit, to the point of seeing the country’s unity crack, with Northern Ireland and Scotland having voted in majority against leaving the EU .
“There is now an empty seat at the table in Europe. It will not stay that way for long,” declared Scottish independence MP Ian Blackford on Wednesday, whose party, the SNP, is calling for a new self-determination referendum.