London: “Britain passed peacefully into Europe at midnight last night without any special celebrations,” read one report in the Guardian the day after the United Kingdom joined the European Economic Community on January 1, 1973. “It was difficult to tell that anything of importance had happened.”
Now, more than 47 years of membership of what became the European Union (EU), come Friday, January 31 at 11:01pm London time, the UK is once more on its own.
But will it be difficult to tell if anything of importance will happen?
But things are different now — if only because of how closely knit the 28 members of the EU are through a common market that combined is the third-largest globally, covers some 500 million people, and allows for the free movement of goods, services and people from the Balearics to the Baltic, from the Balkans to Belfast.
And when the UK formally withdraws from the EU there will be a transition period that may last until the end of 2020 — or could stretch to December 31, 2021. While little will change come February 1, negotiators from both London and Brussels will be engaged in talks to hammer out a free trade agreement that will determine the future relationship between the two.
For the 2 million or so EU citizens who live in the UK, their lives change with Britain to decide on new rules on immigration. While most EU nations have reached separate agreements on those citizens’ rights, for the 1.5 million or so British expats who live, work or are retired in the EU, it’s also a time of uncertainty. What happens to their health coverage? Their pensions? Their residency rights? The transition period must work out the fine details for millions.
That 31 January deadline marks a point of no return. More than three and half years after voting to leave the EU in a deeply divisive referendum that has changed the nature of British politics for a generation, the UK will have its Brexit. It will be no longer part of the EU, walking away from an arrangement that has developed over the decades to change every aspect of life in Britain.
Lawmakers at Westminster are in the process of addressing between 800 and 1,000 separate pieces of legislation that will have to be amended for a Britain free of EU regulations. There are 5,155 EU rules and 899 directives from Brussels among 19,000 pieces of European law now in force in the UK. These rules and directives from the EU have the same legal effect now as British laws, but will cease to apply to the UK when it leaves.
The Withdrawal Agreement, negotiated by Theresa May and renegotiated by Boris Johnson, becomes a binding treaty between the EU and Britain, enforceable with penalties on Brexit Day — the UK’s 73 MEPs will no longer sit in the European Parliament, and its finance ministry must settle its ‘divorce bill’ of £39 billion (Dh186 billion).
As well as those free trade negotiations getting under way, planning in earnest begins for implementing a new customs border between mainland Britain – England, Scotland and Wales – and Northern Ireland, across the Irish Sea. Those customs checks are necessary as part of the Withdrawal Agreement Bill that will ensure that the border between the British-governed province and the Republic of Ireland to the south, remains open and free of customs and security checks. That border is the UK’s only land frontier with the 27 nations that remain in the EU.