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Brexit is Finally Happening

  Next comes an extended period of negotiations to determine the U.K.'s future ties with the bloc. After years of uncertainty and missed deadlines, the U.K. is finally leaving the EU. But the Brexit drama may not be over as the U.K. enters a new phase of negotiations with its trading partners.

(SAI Bureau) London : The U.K. is set to formally quit the European Union late Friday, closing the chapter on nearly half a century of integration with its European neighbors as it looks to chart a new but uncertain course in the world. The day, which follows four years of nearly unprecedented political chaos triggered by the 2016 Brexit referendum, marks a watershed moment for both the U.K. and the EU. The bloc is losing its second-largest economy and a major military force. Britain is leaving the umbrella of a major trading power and will begin a process to forge a new place on the global stage. "The most important thing to say tonight is that this is not an end but a beginning," Prime Minister Boris Johnson is due to tell the nation Friday evening, according to prereleased remarks.
"This is the moment when the dawn breaks and the curtain goes up on a new act." What that act will look like is still unknown. As of 11 p.m. U.K. time, Britain will quit the club of 28 European nations and enter a transition period of at least 11 months as it negotiates future relations with the bloc. During that time, the U.K. will legally be outside the EU but nothing will be different for citizens on either side. Only once the transition ends does the start of a unique experiment in de-globalization truly begin, illustrating what happens when a country erects new barriers to trade with its largest commercial partner. "We are about to run a series of unparalleled experiments," said Anand Menon, professor of politics at King's College London. "We are about to make trade harder."
Across Britain, the day is being marked by muted celebration and protest. A political crisis that cost the jobs of two British prime ministers and sparked two elections has taken its toll. After years of Brexit debate, many Britons simply want to move on. Mr. Johnson traveled to Sunderland, northern England, to hold a symbolic cabinet meeting. In 2016, the city voted strongly in favor of Brexit, and it is the site of a Nissan Motor Co. car factory, whose business is likely to be affected by increased trade barriers. Later, Mr. Johnson will address the nation. Brexit supporters are expected to mass outside Parliament, with an adjacent square having been adorned with British flags for a street party. A few roads away in Westminster, pro-EU supporters are set to hold a march protesting Brexit.
The government's post-Brexit vision remains blurry. Once outside the EU's rules and regulations, Mr. Johnson says he intends to strike trade deals across the world with countries including the U.S. But much depends on trade negotiations with the EU. In the coming months, haggling will start over how much access the U.K. will have to the bloc.
"Every choice has a consequence," the EU's three top leaders said Friday. In a bid to accelerate talks, Mr. Johnson has already ruled out extending negotiations beyond 2020. He also says that Britain won't remain in lockstep with EU regulation. That suggests that the U.K. will sign a bare-bones trade deal, similar to the one the EU signed with Canada in 2016. That would make it more expensive for British manufacturing businesses to trade with Europe, analysts say. Still, once outside the EU, the British government will have a freer hand to bail out or subsidize businesses, for example. Other challenges loom. Scotland, which overwhelmingly voted to stay in the EU during the 2016 referendum, is pushing to hold a referendum on its membership of the U.K. A Brexit supporter shows a Union Jack in front of a statue of Winston Churchill by the Houses of Parliament in London on Friday.
"A new independence referendum will put the decision about the best path for Scotland into our own hands," Scottish National Party leader Nicola Sturgeon said in a speech Friday. So far, Mr. Johnson has said no. For the first time since 2015, an opinion poll showed a majority of Scots favor independence.
It will be left to historians to explain how a relatively small cluster of British euroskeptics engineered a nationwide debate that resulted in a reshaping of the world's largest trading bloc. "This is about how the hell a niche interest of a couple of retired people in a pub in the 1970s turned into this," said Gawain Towler, a longtime ally of Brexit architect Nigel Farage. Britain was always an awkward member of the European club, but few predicted Brexit. Originally, the U.K. wasn't allowed to join the European project, with France vetoing its membership application twice in the 1960s.
In the end, the U.K. became part of the EU in 1973, hoping to benefit from an economic revival that saw EU growth outstrip its own. Despite endorsing membership during a U.K. referendum in 1975, the country chafed as the club gradually evolved from an economic trading unit into a political union. In 1992, a treaty to create a more integrated union sparked a rebellion in Britain's Conservative Party. The U.K. agreed to the treaty but with caveats, including opting out of the common currency. Still, few imagined the U.K. would eventually quit the bloc.Britain's services-dominated economy had benefited from seamless access to the EU, which turned the country into a global gateway to the European market.
Unwinding decades of integration was seen by many economists as economically destructive. In the end it was the ructions within the Conservative Party that forced then Prime Minister David Cameron to call a referendum on Britain's EU membership. He saw it as a way to calm infighting in his party, but the referendum quickly spun out of his control.It laid bare a central problem with Britain's membership: Pro-EU campaigners struggled to make a compelling argument for the project beyond its economic benefits. The loss of sovereign control, especially over the free movement of EU migrants into the country, was successfully leveraged by pro-Brexit campaigners, with Mr. Johnson at the helm. In June 2016, Britain voted 52% to 48% to leave the EU. Four years of political chaos ensued as different factions called for different departure terms. It was left to Prime Minister Theresa May to interpret how to unravel the partnership. She attempted a compromise that would keep Britain out of the EU but in the trade bloc's legal orbit. Neither pro- nor anti-Brexit factions were impressed. A rolling parliamentary rebellion ensued. Her Brexit divorce deal was rejected by three times by lawmakers. Mrs. May was ousted by her own party.
Mr. Johnson didn't make the same mistake. Instead he pushed for a more abrupt break with the EU. He then called an election to clear out lawmakers who didn't back his deal. The high-stakes move paid off. Brexit supporters ditched traditional party allegiances to rally to Mr. Johnson. In late 2019, the Conservative Party won its biggest majority since the 1980s on a wave of blue-collar support.
Now Mr. Johnson pledges to both promote a free-market agenda while also protecting this new electorate from global competition. How this balancing act will play out will define the success of Brexit.
"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," Mr. Johnson is set to tell the country Friday evening.
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