The United Kingdom leaves the European Union on Friday for an uncertain Brexit future, the most significant change to its place in the world since the loss of empire and a blow to 70 years of efforts to forge European unity from the ruins of war.
The country will slip away an hour before midnight from the club it joined in 1973, moving into the no man’s land of a transition period that preserves membership in all but name until the end of this year.
At a stroke, the EU will be deprived of 15% of its economy, its biggest military spender and the world’s international financial capital of London. The divorce will shape the fate of the United Kingdom — and determine its wealth — for generations to come.
“This is the moment when the dawn breaks and the curtain goes up on a new act,” Prime Minister Boris Johnson said in a television address.
Beyond the symbolism of turning its back on 47 years of membership, little will actually change until the end of 2020, by which time Johnson has promised to strike a broad free trade agreement with the EU, the world’s biggest trading bloc.
For proponents, Brexit is a dream “independence day” for a United Kingdom escaping what they cast as a doomed German-dominated project that is failing its 500 million population.
Opponents believe Brexit is a folly that will weaken the West, torpedo what is left of the United Kingdom’s global clout, undermine its economy and ultimately lead to a more insular and less cosmopolitan set of islands in the northern Atlantic.
The June 2016 Brexit referendum showed a divided and triggered soul-searching about everything from secession and immigration to empire and modern Britishness.
Such was the severity of the Brexit meltdown that allies and investors were left astonished by a country that was for decades touted as a confident pillar of Western political stability.
The leaders of the European Union’s three institutions warned Britain on Friday that it cannot expect “the highest quality access to the single market” unless it adopts the bloc’s standards on environment, labor, taxation and state aid.
“Without being a member, you cannot retain the benefits of membership,” they said in an op-ed published by several European media on Friday, ahead of Britain’s exit from the EU at midnight in Brussels (2300 GMT).
“Without the free movement of people, there can be no free movement of capital, goods and services,” European Council President Charles Michel, European Parliament President David Sassoli and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen wrote.
Britain will no longer be an EU member state from Saturday, but it will enter a transition period until the end of December that is meant to give citizens and businesses time to adapt while an agreement is hammered out on the shape of the future relationship.