New Year, new rules: UK begins post-Brexit future

A Union flag flutters in the breeze as the sun sets in Hartlepool, north-east England, on January 1, 2021, where 69.6% of voters in the 2016 “Brexit” referendum opted to leave the EU (European Union). (Photo by Oli SCARFF / AFP)

Britain on Friday began a new year and life outside the European Union’s single market, with the first trucks crossing the Channel by ferry and rail largely reporting few difficulties despite new customs rules.

Brexit, an all-consuming issue in Britain since it voted in 2016 to quit the bloc, became reality an hour before midnight after nearly five decades of integration with Europe.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson was bullishly optimistic, writing in the Daily Telegraph that Brexit presented “opportunities unknown to modern memory”, even as the country battles a new wave of coronavirus infections.

Johnson also tweeted his ambitions for a “Global Britain”, as the country took over the presidency of the G7 nations on Friday and prepares to host the COP 26 climate summit in November.

“I look forward to welcoming our friends and allies as we beat Covid and build back better from the pandemic,” he wrote.

In practical terms, free movement of over 500 million people between Britain and the 27 EU states ended with the New Year.

More rigorous customs checks returned for the first time in decades, despite the hard-fought brokering of a deal with the EU allowing for tariff- and quota-free trade.

Ferry group Stena Line said six freight loads bound for EU member Ireland were turned away at the port of Holyhead in north Wales for not having the correct paperwork.

But the approach to Dover in southeast England, where ferries to and from northern France dock, was quiet as dawn broke at the start of a holiday weekend.

– ‘Our destiny’ –

“Everything was normal,” said Romanian Alexandru Mareci, who was among the first truck drivers to enter Britain after the rule changes.

“Of course, how many people do you know who work on the first day of the New Year? We don’t know how it will be in the future.”

Scores of heavy goods vehicles also passed through the Channel Tunnel connecting Britain and France by rail “without any problem” early Friday, its operator said.

However, the British government, which is implementing a phased introduction of checks, expects next week to be the true test, once the quiet holiday period is over.

In Calais, port operators reported that all went smoothly.

New Year’s Day newspapers reflected the historic but still deeply divisive change, which will have repercussions for generations to come.

The front-page photograph on the pro-Brexit Daily Express showed the White Cliffs of Dover — an enduring symbol of Britishness — with “Freedom” written on a Union flag.

“Our Future. Our Britain. Our Destiny,” said the headline.

But whether the United Kingdom will even stay united was exercising minds as the pro-EU Scottish National Party stepped up calls for a second referendum on independence.

“It’s a very sad day. Brexit puts a barrier in between my ability to be Scottish and my ability to be British,” retiree Bruce Borthwick told AFP in Edinburgh.

The end to EU rules was a triumph for veteran Brexiteers such as populist politician Nigel Farage, a prominent voice in the 2016 referendum campaign to leave.

He tweeted: “25 years ago they all laughed at me. Well, they’re not laughing now.”

In any case, opinion polls indicate that most Britons want to move on, and are far more worried about the worsening coronavirus pandemic, which has left more than 73,500 dead in Britain alone.

– Pets and permits –

Practical changes include how long Britons can visit their holiday homes on the continent, how to travel with pets, and an end to British involvement in an EU student programme.

Holidaymakers and business travellers used to seamless EU travel could face delays, although fears Britons will have to get international permits to drive in Europe were averted by a separate accord.

Another last-minute deal between London and Madrid allowed for the tiny British territory of Gibraltar to become part of Europe’s passport-free zone, to keep movement fluid on its border with Spain.

“It’s good news, it seems like the best way to keep everything moving,” said Oliver Gomez, a 34-year-old actuary, as he walked his dog in Gibraltar’s mostly empty marina.

Others feel they lost out. British fishermen are disgruntled at a compromise in the free trade agreement to allow continued access for EU boats in British waters.

Musicians’ groups are warning that tours of Europe by UK bands will be unviable.

The key financial services sector also faces an anxious wait to learn on what basis it can keep dealing with Europe, after being largely omitted from the trade deal along with services in general, which account for 80 percent of Britain’s economy.

In Northern Ireland, the border with Ireland will be closely watched to ensure movement is unrestricted — key to a 1998 peace deal that ended 30 years of violence over British rule.

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