By Kate Holton and Guy Faulconbridge – LONDON, Jan 31 (Reuters) – The United Kingdom leaves the European Union on Friday with a mixture of joy, anger and indifference, casting off into the unknown after nearly five decades and dealing a blow to Europe’s drive to forge unity from the ruins of World War Two.
The EU’s most powerful leaders, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron, saw Brexit – due at 2300 GMT – as a sad moment that was a turning point for Europe. The EU warned that leaving would be worse than staying.
In the United Kingdom’s biggest geopolitical upheaval since its post-war loss of empire, it turns its back on 47 years of membership and must begin charting its own course for generations to come.
At the stroke of midnight in Brussels, the EU will lose 15% of its economy, its biggest military spender and the world’s international financial capital – London.
A clock projected onto a British-flag themed Downing Street – Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s residence – counted down the minutes.
Several thousand Brexit supporters gathered outside the British parliament, many waving British and English flags as they sang Elgar’s “Land of Hope and Glory.”
“For many people, this is an astonishing moment of hope, a moment they thought would never come,” said Johnson, one of the leaders of the “Leave” campaign in the 2016 referendum on EU membership. “This is the dawn of a new era.”
Johnson celebrated with English sparkling wine and a distinctly British array of canapés including Shropshire blue cheese and Yorkshire puddings with beef and horseradish.
In Brussels, the British flag was lowered at the EU council building and the bloc’s flag, a circle of 12 stars on a blue background, was removed from outside the British embassy.
Leaving the EU was once far-fetched: the UK joined in 1973 as “the sick man of Europe” and less than two decades ago British leaders were arguing about whether to join the euro.
But the turmoil of the euro zone crisis, fears about mass immigration and a series of miscalculations by former Prime Minister David Cameron prompted the 52% to 48% vote to leave.
The final parting of the EU’s most recalcitrant member is an anticlimax of sorts. Beyond the symbolism, little will change until the end of 2020.
By then, Johnson has promised to strike a broad free trade agreement with the EU, the world’s biggest trading bloc.
“These negotiations certainly won’t be easy,” Merkel said, cautioning London that if it deviated from the EU’s rules then its access to the bloc’s vast single market would be limited.
Macron said Britain it could not expect to be treated the same way as when it was part of the club.
“You can’t be in and out,” Macron told the French in a televised address. “The British people chose to leave the European Union. It won’t have the same obligations, so it will no longer have the same rights.”
U.S. President Donald Trump has long supported Brexit. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Britons wanted to escape the “tyranny of Brussels.”
Some Britons will celebrate and others will weep – but many will do neither.
For proponents, Brexit is “independence day” – an escape from what they cast as a doomed German-dominated project with a doomed single currency that is failing its 500 million people.
They hope departure will herald reforms to reshape Britain and propel it ahead of its European rivals.
“Well for three and a half years they’ve been trying to stop it from happening, but we are getting our independence back,” Mark Leeds, a 39-year-old butcher, told Reuters beside parliament.
Opponents say Brexit is a folly that will weaken the West, torpedo what is left of Britain’s global clout, undermine its economy and ultimately leave the United Kingdom a less cosmopolitan set of islands in the northern Atlantic.
David Tucker, a pro-European of 75, said he had come to London from Wales to march in the hope that others would keep alive the hope that Britain would one day rejoin the EU.
“It is a tragedy,” he said. “We were once part of the world’s most powerful economic bloc. Now we are just an inward-looking island that is going to get smaller.”
But Brexit was always about much more than Europe.
The referendum exposed deep divisions and triggered soul-searching about everything from secession and immigration to empire and modern Britishness.
Brexit has tested the very fabric of the supposedly united kingdom: England and Wales voted to leave the bloc but Scotland and Northern Ireland voted to stay.
But after the twists and turns of 3-1/2-years, many voters are simply happy the wrangling is over. “I just wanted to see it done with,” said Lee Stokes, a 44-year-old project manager.
(Writing by Guy Faulconbridge; Additional reporting by Kylie MacLellan, Andy Bruce, Kate Holton and Andrew MacAskill in London; John Chalmers and Gabriela Baczynska in Brussels; Editing by Catherine Evans and Giles Elgood)
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