LONDON - After three-and-a-half years of tortuous negotiations and political chaos that forced the resignation of two prime ministers, Britain will officially leave the European Union at 11:00 p.m. London time Friday. Pro-Brexit supporters are planning celebrations in central London and elsewhere across the country, while pro-EU marches also are expected in the capital.
Members of the European Parliament joined hands to sing "Auld Lang Syne" at the end of the session Wednesday in Brussels, a friendly farewell to their 73 British counterparts, after having voted through the terms of Britain's departure from the EU under the Withdrawal Agreement and Political Declaration.
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Pro-Brexit British members of the European Parliament celebrated as they headed home. “We're leaving. Freedom, democracy, to self-governance, we've won!” declared Brexit party member of Parliament (MEP) Nigel Farage.
For others, there was sadness and regret. “Everybody will miss the British representatives,” said Belgian MEP Guy Verhofstadt. “Not all British representatives — for example, I don't think we will miss Mr. Farage. But all the others — yes.”
So with Britain’s EU departure at 11 p.m. Friday now certain, is Brexit done and dusted? Not so, says former U.S. ambassador Charlie Ries, now with the RAND Corporation.
"Many people believe that Brexit having gone through three-and-a-half-years of debate about what kind of Brexit they have, and whether to have it, [that] it's all sorted, it's all done. It isn't done at all. In fact, the actual dimensions of the new relationship between Britain and the EU is just starting,” Ries told VOA in an interview this week.
The continuing uncertainty during those negotiations will cost Britain $5.5 billion in lost GDP this year alone, according to a RAND Corporation report, increasing to $13.8 billion if the negotiations continue to 2025.
Boris Johnson, who discussed a future trade deal with the U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in London Thursday, has ruled out extending EU negotiations beyond the end of 2020.
“The sooner they get it done, the faster they get the uncertainty gone,” says Ries. “On the other hand, if they get a worse deal to get it quicker, then they may pay over the long term to reduce the uncertainty in the short term.”
Johnson wants quick trade deals with the U.S. and other countries outside Europe. “Whatever they gain from the rest of the world will not offset the costs of withdrawing from the EU,” Ries said.
Early indications suggest Europe will demand access to British fishing waters and guarantees that Britain won’t undercut the EU’s labor and environmental standards, in return for access to the EU Single Market. Britain has ruled out such close alignment.
The EU’s Chief Brexit Negotiator Michel Barnier has repeatedly warned that such a Britain deal is unrealistic.
"A new clock is ticking. Eleven months is extremely short,” Barnier told an audience in Belfast this week. “I just say that leaving the EU, leaving the single market, will have consequences and what I saw in the past, in the last few years, many of these consequences have been underestimated on the U.K. [Britian] side or not so well explained to the people, so now we have to face the reality and to be realistic. There will be no possibility for frictionless trade between the EU and the U.K. after Brexit.”
Meanwhile, the United Kingdom itself is coming under increasing strain, with Scotland’s devolved government in Edinburgh demanding a vote on independence so it can try to re-join the European Union. Boris Johnson so far has refused permission for Scotland to hold another independence referendum following the last such vote in 2014.
Brexit will be celebrated by its supporters with parties in central London and elsewhere Friday night. But January 31 is simply the end of the first chapter in the long drama of Brexit.