Andrew Woodcock, The Independent, January 30, 2020
Britain brings down the curtain on 47 years of European Union membership on Friday with little in the way of official ceremony to mark the historic moment.
Some 1,317 days after the 2016 referendum vote to Leave, the formal departure from the 28-nation bloc will take place at 11pm UK time – midnight in Brussels.
Boris Johnson, who served as the figurehead of the Vote Leave campaign and last Friday signed the withdrawal treaty after its passage through parliament, said the day would signal “the dawn of a new era”.
But Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said that the country stood at “a crossroads” with many of the most important decisions about its future relations with the EU and the wider world yet to be made.
And Nicola Sturgeon, the Scottish first minister, is expected to say that Scotland is being taken out of the EU against the wishes of the “overwhelming majority” of its people, in a speech setting out the next steps in her battle for an independence referendum.
Downing Street made clear the prime minister will not be making any public appearance to celebrate the moment of withdrawal.
After chairing cabinet in Sunderland – the city whose vote for Brexit was the first sign of Leave’s victory on referendum night – the prime minister will return to London to attend an evening reception with staff behind closed doors.
A light display beamed onto the frontage of No 10 will be visible only to a few journalists and security staff inside the black gates of Downing Street.
And a pre-recorded video message risked going unseen by TV viewers, due to a spat with broadcasters who objected to No 10’s insistence of filming the footage itself rather than following the normal practice of inviting in a pool camera from one of the television companies.
Supporters of Brexit will welcome the accomplishment of their long-cherished goal with a rally in Parliament Square, where they are promised speeches from Nigel Farage and Anne Widdecombe as well as patriotic songs.
But there will be no chimes from Big Ben, no fireworks and no alcohol allowed on an evening forecast to be chilly and damp.
Following the ratification of Mr Johnson’s withdrawal agreement by parliaments in Westminster and Brussels, the UK is required to hand over more than £30bn to settle liabilities, guarantee rights to EU expats living in Britain and establish a customs border down the Irish Sea. It will lose all representation in EU decision-making institutions, but will remain subject to EU rules during a transition period lasting until the end of December.
The Department for Exiting the EU will cease to exist at 11pm on Friday, with staff redistributed to ministries across Whitehall. But members of the public are not expected to notice any immediate change to everyday life while the transition takes place.
The UK then faces a tight schedule to secure a new trade agreement with the remaining EU members by New Year’s Eve or face a potentially damaging no-deal crash-out on World Trade Organisation terms. With Brussels yet to draw up a mandate for negotiations, talks are not expected to begin until March, with agreement on fisheries and financial services needed by July.
In his video address, timed to go public an hour before Brexit at 10pm, Mr Johnson will describe EU withdrawal as “not an end but a beginning”.
“This is the moment when the dawn breaks and the curtain goes up on a new act,” he will say. “It is a moment of real national renewal and change.
“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. This is the moment when we begin to unite and level up.”
Speaking ahead of Brexit Day, Mr Corbyn said there would be “different views and feelings” across the country.
“Britain’s place in the world will change. The question is what direction we now take,” he said.
“We will hold the government to account every step of the way: to ensure jobs and living standards, rights at work, and consumer and environmental standards are protected as part of whatever is negotiated with the EU, the US or any other country.
“We are determined to defend the gains we have made with others on these issues in the EU.
“And we will resist a toxic Trump deal that puts our NHS, food standards and jobs at risk.”
Speaking in Edinburgh, Ms Sturgeon will say: “Tonight Scotland will be taken out of the European Union against the wishes of the overwhelming majority of people in Scotland.
“Nothing could more starkly demonstrate how our nation’s needs are no longer served by a broken, discredited Westminster union.
“But there is the prospect of a brighter, better future as an equal, independent European nation.
“And today I will lay out the next steps on Scotland’s journey to independence.
“We have a cast-iron democratic mandate for an independence referendum – and the latest polling shows a majority back Yes.
“Boris Johnson is terrified of the Scottish people having their say but his bid to stand in the way of democracy will not succeed.”