A new era has opened in the UK, which has turned its back on a 48-year affair with the European project for an uncertain post-Brexit future.
The UK left the EU’s vast single market for people, goods and services at 11 p.m. GMT, midnight in Brussels, on Thursday New Years Eve, as the Brexit transition period expired 11 months after the country officially left the bloc on January 31.
The New Year’s papers reflect historic but still profoundly divisive change, which will impact generations to come.
The front-page photograph of the pro-Brexit Daily Express showed the White Cliffs of Dover – an enduring symbol of Britishness – with ‘Liberty’ inscribed on a Union flag.
“Our future. Our Britain. Our destiny,” said the headline.
The pro-EU independent was less sure: “Off the hook – or adrift?” he asked, reflecting widespread uncertainty on the path the country had now chosen.
In early 2021, attention turned to the UK’s borders, especially major Channel seaports, to see if ending seamless trade and travel would cause delays and disruption.
But with New Years Day a public holiday followed by a weekend, and the government announcing the phased introduction of checks, few immediate problems were expected.
“The traffic forecasts for the next few days are very poor,” said John Keefe, spokesperson for Eurotunnel, which transports goods, cars and coaches under the Channel.
As the first ferry left the port of Dover early on Friday, truckers heading to the port city of Calais in northern France faced for the first time the new rules for transporting goods to and from continental Europe.
A barcode on Romanian driver Toma Moise’s documents was scanned and approved within seconds.
“The future, I don’t think it’s difficult,” he said, before continuing his journey to Britain.
The Road Haulage Association, an industry body, estimates that some 220 million new forms will now need to be filled out each year to allow trade with EU countries, including driver’s licenses even on roads leading to ports like Dover.
“This is a revolutionary change,” said Rod McKenzie, RHA’s chief public policy officer this week.
Other practical changes include the length of time Britons can visit their holiday homes on the continent, travel with pets and the end of UK participation in an EU student program.
Holidaymakers and business travelers accustomed to smooth travel in the EU could face delays, although fears that Britons would have to obtain international licenses to drive in Europe were averted by a separate agreement.
Critically, UK fishermen are unhappy with a compromise in the free trade agreement to allow continued access for EU boats to UK waters, which has raised fears of clashes at sea.
The split follows the June 2016 referendum on the EU, when a slim majority of Britons vote to exit the bloc, the UK’s largest trading partner.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, whose Brexit support helped push Britain out of the EU, called it “an incredible moment for this country”.
“We have our freedom in our hands, and it’s up to us to make the most of it,” he said in a New Years video message.
But Johnson has lacked details on what he wants to build with ‘independence’ from Britain – or how to do it while borrowing record amounts to pay for the COVID-19 crisis.
Supporters see Brexit as the dawn of a newly independent ‘Global Britain’.
Critics say it reverses decades of integration with its nearest neighbors, threatens to hurt the economy and, at worst, could lead to the break-up of the UK by weakening the bonds that bind England , Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland have an economy of $ 3 trillion.
In the 2016 vote, a majority in England and Wales voted to leave the bloc, while most in Scotland and Northern Ireland voted to stay in the EU.
Northern Ireland, which shares a border with EU member Ireland, remains closely linked to the EU economy under the post-Brexit deal.
Meanwhile at Scotland, Brexit has strengthened support for independence after 300 years of political union between England and Scotland.
Scottish Prime Minister Nicola Sturgeon has said an independence referendum is expected to take place in the first part of the next term of the decentralized Scottish parliament, which begins next year.
“Scotland will be back soon, Europe. Keep the light on, ”Sturgeon tweeted Thursday night.
In the last referendum on Scottish independence from the UK, 55% voted against.
“ Brexit is by no means over ”
In France, Thursday’s shift sparked a message of regret from President Emmanuel Macron.
“The UK remains our neighbor but also our friend and ally,” he said.
“This choice to leave Europe, this Brexit, was the result of European malaise and a lot of lies and false promises.”
Natacha Butler of Al Jazeera, reporting from Calais, said Macron’s message reflected the reality that many aspects of the UK’s future relationship with the EU have yet to be determined.
Further discussions on issues ranging from fair competition to fishing quotas are expected as London and Brussels settle into their new relationship.
“Brexit is by no means done completely, as there are still negotiations to be undertaken and talks to be done,” Butler said.
“There is still no agreement, for example, on services, a very important sector, in particular the financial sector,” she added. “There is still a lot of work to do.”