LONDON (AP) – Britain's long and sometimes bitter divorce from the European Union ended on Thursday with an economic split that left the EU smaller and Britain freer but more isolated in a turbulent world.
Britain left the European bloc's vast internal market for people, goods and services at 11 p.m. London time, midnight in Brussels, completes the greatest single economic change the country has seen since World War II. Another UK-EU trade deal will bring new restrictions and bureaucracy, but for Brexit supporters, it means regaining national independence from the EU and its regulatory framework.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson, whose support for Brexit helped drive the country out of the EU, called it "an amazing moment for this country".
British and EU citizens have lost the automatic right to live and work on each other's territory while tourists face new headaches.
"We have our freedom in our hands and it is up to us to make the most of it," he said in a New Years video message.
The break comes 11 months after a political Brexit that left the two sides in the limbo of a “transitional phase” – like a separated couple still living together, arguing and wondering if they can stay friends. Now the UK has finally moved out.
It was a day some had longed for and others feared since Britain voted to leave the EU in a 2016 referendum, but it turned out to be some kind of antidote. UK lockdown measures to contain the coronavirus limited mass gatherings to celebrate or mourn the moment, though a handful of Brexit supporters defied restrictions on raising a toast outside Parliament when the Big Ben bell eleven Times every hour.
A free trade agreement, which was sealed on Christmas Eve after months of negotiations, ensures that the UK and the EU with 27 states can continue to buy and sell goods without tariffs or quotas. This should help protect the £ 660 billion ($ 894 billion) annual trade between the two sides and the hundreds of thousands of jobs that depend on it.
However, businesses face new costs and paperwork, including customs declarations and border controls. Traders are struggling to digest the new rules of the 1,200-page trade agreement.
The Channel Port of Dover and the Eurotunnel passenger and cargo route were preparing for delays when the new measures were introduced. However, the pandemic and a bank holiday weekend meant cross-channel traffic was low and few trucks arrived at French border posts as Calais ended up in 2020. The vital supply route was growled for days after France closed its border to British truckers for 48 hours last week in response to a rapidly spreading variant of the virus identified in England.
The UK government insisted that "the border systems and infrastructure we need are in place and that we are ready for the UK to start fresh".
But the freight companies held their breath. Youngs Transportation in the UK shut down services to the EU until January 11th to get things sorted.
"We assume the country has about a week to get used to all of these new systems and we can take a look and hopefully solve any problems before we actually ship our trucks," said the director of the Company, Rob Hollyman.
The service sector, which makes up 80% of the UK economy, doesn't even know what the rules for doing business with the EU will be in 2021. Many details have yet to be worked out. Months and years of more discussion and wrangling on everything from fair competition to fish quotas lie ahead as the UK and EU form their new relationships as friends, neighbors and rivals.
Hundreds of millions of people in the UK and on the block are also facing changes in their daily lives. British and EU citizens have lost the automatic right to live and work on each other's territory. From now on they have to follow immigration regulations and get a work visa. Tourists have new headaches, including travel insurance and pet paperwork.
For some in Britain, including the Prime Minister, this is a moment of pride and an opportunity for Britain to set new diplomatic and economic priorities. Johnson said the UK is now "free to do business around the world and fuel our ambitions to be a scientific superpower".
Scotland's Independent Minister Nicola Sturgeon tweeted: “Scotland will be back soon, Europe. Keep the light on "
Conservative lawmaker Bill Cash, who has campaigned for Brexit for decades, said it was a "victory for democracy and sovereignty".
This is not a view that is widespread across the Channel. Emmanuel Macron expressed his regret in the French President's traditional New Years address.
"The UK remains our neighbor, but also our friend and ally," he said. "This decision to leave Europe, this Brexit, was the child of European malaise and many lies and false promises."
The divorce could also have significant constitutional implications for the UK. Northern Ireland, which shares a border with EU member Ireland, remains more closely linked to the bloc's economy under the terms of the divorce, a status that could divert it from the rest of the UK.
In Scotland, which voted strongly to remain in 2016, Brexit has increased support for separation from Britain. The country's independent minister, Nicola Sturgeon, tweeted: “Scotland will be back soon, Europe. Keep the light on "
Many in the UK have been concerned about a leap into the unknown taking place during a pandemic that is changing lives around the world.
"I'm very sorry we're leaving," said Jen Pearcy-Edwards, a London filmmaker. “I think COVID has overshadowed everything that is going on. But I think the other thing that has happened is that people have a greater sense of community, and I think that makes it even sadder that we are breaking up our community a bit by leaving our neighbors in Europe.
"I hope we can find other ways to rebuild relationships," she said.