Crowds waved little Union Jack flags, sang God Save the Queen and then Rule Britannia in central London as clocks across the United Kingdom struck Brexit hour – 11pm local time – as their nation formally left the European Union.
After 47 years of marriage and 42 months of trying to sign its divorce, the UK is now separated from Brussels.
Divorced yes – but still living in the same house until December 31, or possibly until the end of 2021. If that’s the case, then what changed on Friday night?
Essentially everything, essentially noting.
Because 47 years of membership of the political, social and economic bloc of more than 550 million people brought changes to most aspect of everyday life – the EU touches every aspect of people’s lives – leaving the bloc is highly complex.
That wasn’t weighing on the minds or celebratory moods of Brexiteers at Parliament Square on Friday night, who likened their departure from the EU as akin to that felt by colonists in America who decided to split from British rule in 1776.
“Were they worried about signing a free trade agreement at the Boston Tea party?” one reveler asked.
A music system was set up on the back of a lorry on Parliament Street, with people dancing in a closed-off section of the road to music by Sir Tom Jones and Queen.
As one man walked through the crowd with an EU flag draped over his shoulders, another man carrying the Union Flag shouted at him: “Go away loser.”
Dozens of people gathered around the Sir Winston Churchill statue, while others rang bells and banged a drum attached to a modified cart called Little Ben.
The cart belongs to David and Nancy Waller, who travelled from Shropshire to take part in the Brexit Celebration.
“We have come here because we are great supporters of democracy,” Weller said. “At one stage we thought it was all over, but it ain’t now.”
Addressing the crowd from a stage before the 20-second countdown, Brexit Party leader Nigel Farage said: “This is something that I fought for – for 27 years and something that many thousands of you gave your time and money for.
“We faced an established that didn’t even want to listen to us. An establishment that never wanted that referendum to take place. An establishment that tried for three and a half years to frustrate the will of the greatest democratic mandate ever seen.”
He added: “The people have beaten the establishment. The real winner tonight is democracy. Let us celebrate tonight as we have never done before. This is the greatest moment in the modern history of our great nation.”
No nation has left the EU before. That’s why both Brussels and London agreed that there would be a transition period – time to sort out all of the rules, regulations and relationships that need to change after Brexit.
Effectively, despite all of the hoopla, jingoism and Union Jack waving, little changes – for now.
Sure, Farage and the rest of Britain’s representatives in EU institutions are out of work, the Union Jack no longer flies over EU institutions, and UK lawmakers are now free to make their own laws in areas that would normally have been a remit of European law.
But these next 11 months of the transition period are now critical in sorting out exactly what the relationship between the UK and the EU will be.
Both sides have to hammer out a free trade deal that will keep the their two separate economies as closely aligned as possible.
That means that goods will still flow freely across the English Channel without tariffs, that security information is exchanged between authorities, that airlines can still largely follow the same set of rules, and that the lives of ordinary people from EU nations who live in Britain – there are at least two million of them – and the slightly lesser number of Brits who live in EU nations – can continue to do with as little disruption as possible.
But there is confusion.
Already new advice from the British government warns travellers from next year of what they’ll face visiting the EU.
They’ll need to organise health insurance EU; will need to have a visa to work or study there; will need to have an international driving permit; might face roaming changes on their phones; might need to prove they have a return ticket and enough funds for their trip; will have to learn patience while queueing through slow passport lanes for non-EU citizens at airports; and will have to make detailed arrangements to have their family pets go on holidays to the continent.
For British businesses who send their goods into the EU, there might be an need to fill out customs documents in advance, making sure that paperwork has been properly filed, and that the truck driver who will move it to Europe has a license to do so – and is permitted to work in the EU.
And when it comes to even moving goods within parts of the UK itself, things will change.
Because of the need to keep the border between British-administered Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland to the south as open as possible, Prime Minister Boris Johnson agreed that customs checks would happen in ports in Scotland and England before they travelled to or from Northern Ireland.
That effectively means that there are separate customs rules inside the UK itself – a logistical nightmare for British firms but also a pollical setback for the union that keeps England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland together.
Brexit has now directly impacted those bonds.
With Northern Ireland being treated differently and having easier access to the EU though its seamless land border with the Irish Republic, it is moving away from London’s orbit – and already for the first time in its history, it has more Irish nationalist MPs who seek reunification with the rest of Ireland than unionist MPs who want the province to remain an intrinsic part of the UK.
On Friday night as Brexiteers celebrated in London, there was a different mood in Scotland, where a majority of Scots voted overwhelmingly to remain in the EU in that 2016 referendum.
There, lawmakers in the Scottish Edinburgh have deiced that the EU flag will continue to be flown over the parliamentary buildings at Holyrood in Edinburgh.
“We need to give practical demonstration to the loss that so many feel when we are no longer members of the European Union,” Scottish culture minister Fiona Hyslop says.
Five years ago, Scottish voters also rejected overwhelmingly rejected independence in a referendum, but Brexit has helped change that sentiment.
A new polls says 51 per cent of Scots now favour independence – with a sovereign Scotland seeking a fast-track membership of the EU.
“The fact that this poll shift has happened as Scotland is taken out to the EU is no coincidence,” said Patrick Harvie, co-founder of the pro-independence Scottish Greens.
“People in Scotland can see there is a route back to the European table through independence.”
- With inputs from agencies
Mick O’Reilly is the Gulf News Foreign Correspondent based in Europe