Global 360

U.K. Leaves E.U., Embarking On an Uncertain Future

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At 11 p.m. — midnight in Brussels and 6 p.m. in New York — Britain officially left the European Union. Flags lined Parliament Square and the Mall, the ceremonial avenue leading to Buckingham Palace, and government buildings were lit up in the red, white and blue of the Union Jack.

A countdown clock was projected onto the front of 10 Downing Street, the prime minister’s official residence, along with a commemorative light display to “symbolize the strength and unity” of the United Kingdom.

“This is not an end but a beginning,” Prime Minister Bris Johnson said in a speech to the nation shortly before the official departure. “This is the moment when the dawn breaks and the curtain goes up on a new act.”

The departure, 1,317 days after Britain voted to leave the bloc, carries not only enormous symbolic weight, but also significant legal consequences. It concluded three years of fractious debates over whether the country should really leave the bloc, the terms of its departure and the kind of relationship it should forge with Europe.

“We’ll have a couple months of people trying not to talk about it again, trying to pretend it’s not a thing that’s happening,” said Amanda Chetwynd-Cowieson, who led a group that tried to overturn Brexit. “But realistically it’s not going to be sorted in a year. It’s going to start rearing its head and opening divisions within families again.”

The departure marks the start of a transition period in which London and Brussels will hash out the terms of their future ties.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his cabinet began Friday with a meeting in Sunderland, a city in northern England that was the first to announce it had voted in favor of leaving the European Union on the night of the 2016 referendum.

It was the first of a handful of celebratory, but noticeably muted, official events to mark the day, suggesting that the pro-Brexit government wanted to avoid the appearance of gloating. In the referendum, 48 percent of voters wanted to remain part of the European Union, and later polls suggest that number may have grown since.

Credit…Frank Augstein/Associated Press

In the years of debate over Britain’s exit from the European Union, Prime Minister Boris Johnson was never one for nuance, even declaring that he would “rather be dead in a ditch” than see Brexit delayed again.

But as the hour of reckoning approached, Downing Street was remarkably subdued, not wanting to rub salt in the still raw wounds of those who desperately wanted to remain — about half the country.

When he addressed the nation at 10 p.m., an hour before the official departure, Mr. Johnson struck a hopeful and conciliatory note.

“Our job as the government, my job, is to bring this country together and take us forward,” he said.

Of course, the next year of negotiations over Britain’s new trade relationship with the European Union will play a large role in determining what the future will hold.

But that concern was for another day. Mr. Johnson, instead, used his remarks to try to persuade the public that Brexit was “not an end but a beginning.”

“This is the dawn of a new era in which we no longer accept that your life chances — your family’s life chances — should depend on which part of the country you grow up in,” he said. “This is the moment when we begin to unite and level up.”

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