Into the Brexit Unknown, a Divided United Kingdom Goes It Alone

The United Kingdom exits the European Union’s orbit Thursday, turning its back on a tempestuous 48-year liaison with the European project for an uncertain post-Brexit future in its most significant geopolitical shift since the loss of empire.Brexit, in essence, takes place at the strike of midnight in Brussels, or 2300 London time (GMT), when the United Kingdom leaves de-facto membership that continued for a transition period after it formally left the bloc January 31.For five years, the frenzied gyrations of the Brexit crisis dominated European affairs, haunted the sterling markets and tarnished the United Kingdom’s reputation as a confident pillar of Western economic and political stability.After years of Brexit vitriol, one of the most significant events in European history since the 1991 fall of the Soviet Union will pass with little fanfare: The United Kingdom will slip away, serenaded by the silence of the COVID-19 crisis.Supporters cast Brexit as the dawn of a newly independent “global Britain,” but it has weakened the bonds that bind England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland into a $3 trillion economy.UK chief trade negotiator David Frost looks on as Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson signs the EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement at 10 Downing Street, London, Dec. 30, 2020.”This is an amazing moment for this country,” Prime Minister Boris Johnson, 56, said in his New Year’s Eve message. “We have our freedom in our hands, and it is up to us to make the most of it.”As EU leaders and citizens bade farewell, Johnson said there would be no bonfire of regulations to build a “bargain basement Dickensian Britain” and that the country would remain the “quintessential European civilization.”But Johnson, the face of the Brexit campaign, 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.BrexitIn the June 23, 2016, referendum, 17.4 million voters, or 52%, backed Brexit while 16.1 million, or 48%, backed staying in the bloc. Few have changed their minds since. England and Wales voted out, but Scotland and Northern Ireland voted in.The referendum showed a United Kingdom divided about much more than the European Union, and fueled soul-searching about everything from secession and immigration to capitalism, the legacy of empire and what it now means to be British.Leaving was once the far-fetched dream of a motley crew of “eurosceptics” on the fringes of British politics: Britain joined in 1973 as “the sick man of Europe” and two decades ago British leaders were arguing about whether to join the euro. It never did.But the turmoil of the euro zone crisis, attempts to integrate the EU further, fears about mass immigration and discontent with leaders in London helped Brexiteers win the referendum with a message of patriotic, if vague, hope.”We see a global future for ourselves,” said Johnson who won power in 2019 and, against the odds, clinched a Brexit divorce treaty and a trade deal, as well as the biggest Conservative majority since Margaret Thatcher, in the 2019 election.Supporters see Brexit as an escape from a doomed Franco-German project that has stagnated while the United States and China surged ahead. Opponents say Brexit will weaken the West, further reduce Britain’s global clout, make people poorer and lessen its cosmopolitanism.When the bell known as Big Ben tolls 11 through a scaffold, there will be few outward displays of emotion as gatherings are banned because of COVID-19 restrictions.FILE – British Union flag waves in front of the Elizabeth Tower at Houses of Parliament containing the bell know as “Big Ben” in central London, March 29, 2017.United Kingdom?After the United Kingdom leaves the Single Market or the Customs Union, there is almost certain to be some disruption at borders. More red tape means more cost for those importing and exporting goods across the EU-U.K. border.After haggling over a trade deal for months, the British government published 70 pages of case studies just hours before its departure advising companies on what rules they would have to follow at the new U.K.-EU border.The Port of Dover expects volumes to drop off in early January. The most worrisome period, it says, will be in mid- to late January when volumes pick up again.Support for Scottish independence has risen, partly because of Brexit and partly because of COVID-19, threatening the 300-year-old political union between England and Scotland.FILE – In this Feb. 10, 2020, file photo, Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon speaks during an event at the European Policy Center in Brussels.Scottish leader Nicola Sturgeon has said an independence referendum should take place in the earlier part of the devolved parliament’s next term, which begins next year.After clinching the Christmas Eve trade deal that will smooth out the worst disruption, Commission President Ursula von der Leyen quoted both William Shakespeare and T.S. Eliot.”Parting is such sweet sorrow,” she said. “What we call the beginning is often the end. And to make an end is to make a beginning.”