New year, new era as UK begins post-Brexit future

As Brexit was completed, chaos was avoided at UK borders, but critical divisions unleashed by the historic divorce remain.

A cross-channel ferry departs the Port of Dover heading for France, at dawn on the first day following the end of the Brexit transition period, Dover, Britain, on January 1, 2021 [Toby Melville/Reuters]

A new era has dawned in the United Kingdom, which has turned its back on a 48-year liaison 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 23:00 GMT, midnight in Brussels, on Thursday, New Year’s Eve, as the Brexit transition period expired 11 months after the country formally left the bloc on January 31.

New Year’s Day newspapers reflected the historic but still deeply divisive change, which will have repercussions for generations to come.

The pro-Brexit Daily Express’s front-page photograph showed the White Cliffs of Dover – an enduring symbol of Britishness – with “Freedom” written on a Union flag.

“Our Future. Our Britain. Our Destiny,” said the headline.

The pro-EU Independent was less sure: “Off the hook – or cut adrift?” it asked, reflecting widespread uncertainty at the path the country had now chosen.

As 2021 began, attention turned to the UK borders, particularly the key Channel seaports, to see if the end to seamless trade and travel would cause delays and disruption.

But with New Year’s Day a public holiday followed by a weekend, and the government having announced the phased introduction of checks, few immediate problems were envisaged.

“The traffic forecast for the next few days is very light,” said John Keefe, spokesman for Eurotunnel, which transports freight, cars and coaches under the Channel.

As the first ferry left the Port of Dover early on Friday, truckers rolling into the port city of Calais, in northern France, had to deal for the first time with the new rules for transporting goods to and from mainland Europe.

A barcode on Romanian driver Toma Moise’s paperwork was scanned and approved in seconds.

“The future, I don’t think it will be difficult,” he said, before continuing his journey towards Britain.

The Road Haulage Association, an industry body, estimates that some 220 million new forms will now need to be filled in every year to allow trade to flow with EU countries, including permits to even drive on the roads leading to ports like Dover.

“This is a revolutionary change,” Rod McKenzie, managing director of public policy at the RHA, told The Times newspaper this week.

Other practical changes include how long Britons can visit their holiday homes on the continent, to travel with pets, and an end to British involvement in an EU student programme.

Holidaymakers and business travellers used to seamless EU travel could face delays, although fears Britons will have to get international permits to drive in Europe were averted by a separate accord.

Critically, UK fishermen are disgruntled at a compromise in the free trade agreement to allow continued access for EU boats in British waters, which has raised fears of clashes at sea.

The split follows the June 2016 EU referendum, when a slim majority of Britons vote in favour of quitting the bloc, the UK’s largest trading partner.

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, whose support for Brexit helped push the UK out of the EU, called it “an amazing moment for this country”.

“We have our freedom in our hands, and it is up to us to make the most of it,” he said in a New Year’s video message.

But Johnson has been short on detail about what he wants to build with Britain’s “independence” – or how to do it while borrowing record amounts to pay for the COVID-19 crisis.

Brewing crisis

Supporters view Brexit as the dawn of a newly independent “global Britain”.

Critics say it reverses decades of integration with its closest neighbours, threatens to harm the economy and, at worst, could lead to the breakup of the UK by weakening the bonds that bind England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland to a $3 trillion economy.

In the 2016 vote, a majority in England and Wales voted in favour of exiting the bloc, while most in Scotland and Northern Ireland voted in favour of remaining an EU member.

Northern Ireland, which shares a border with EU member Ireland, remains closely tied to the bloc’s economy under the post-Brexit agreement.

Meanwhile, in Scotland, Brexit has bolstered support for independence after 300 years of political union between England and Scotland.

Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has said an independence referendum should take place in the earlier part of Scotland’s devolved parliament’s next term, which begins next year.

“Scotland will be back soon, Europe. Keep the light on,” Sturgeon tweeted on Thursday evening.

In the last referendum on Scottish independence from the UK, 55 percent voted against.

‘Brexit is by no means done’

In France, Thursday’s shift prompted a message of regret from President Emmanuel Macron.

“The United Kingdom remains our neighbour but also our friend and ally,” he said.

“This choice of leaving Europe, this Brexit, was the child of European malaise and lots of lies and false promises.”

Al Jazeera’s Natacha Butler, reporting from Calais, said Macron’s message reflected the reality that many aspects of the UK and EU’s future relationship are yet to be determined.

Further discussions over issues from fair competition to fishing quotas are expected as London and Brussels settle into their new relationship.

“Brexit is by no means done completely, because there are still negotiations that need to be undertaken and still talks to be done,” Butler said.

“There is still no agreement, for example, on services, a very important sector, particularly the financial sector,” she added. “There is still a lot of work ahead.”

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies