Brexit Day: Britain may have left the European Union but hard work remains to shape the country for the decades ahead

NIcholas Cecil

Just as the pubs rang for last orders tonight, Britain quit the European Union. Symbolically, a midnight departure would have had more resonance.

But the UK left at 11pm, as even on this the EU took precedence, doing it to its timescale, being one hour ahead.

Now, a series of hard choices lie ahead on trade ties, law and order, and a string of other issues which will shape this country’s future for decades.

And so far in the short history of Brexit, the trend has been Brussels giving a little and the UK Government making bigger concessions in order to deliver on the result of the 2016 referendum.

The trend has been Brussels giving a little and the UK Government making bigger concessions

Ministers initially vowed Britain would negotiate the “divorce” from the EU alongside the new trade deal. Brussels said no, and no was the answer.

At least one senior aide of the then-European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker is said to have claimed that the price for Britain of Brexit would be losing Northern Ireland.

Under the withdrawal deal, Northern Ireland remains legally and constitutionally part of the UK but there will be a border of sorts down the Irish Sea, with new checks.

A man carries an EU themed wreath at Parliament Square (Reuters)

Despite years of fraught negotiations, which ultimately cost Theresa May her premiership, few people doubt that the “divorce” deal will turn out to have been far easier than reaching the new trade agreement which will need Britain and 27 other countries, with often competing priorities, to be willing to sign up to it.

Trade deals often take at least five years to finalise. Boris Johnson’s government is seeking to strike one, at breakneck speed in less than 12 months, which will see no tariffs or quotas on either side of the Channel.

On the Prime Minister’s side is that he has a united Government, a comfortable Commons majority and has shown ruthlessness, succeeding against the odds in re-opening Mrs May’s “divorce” deal, even if it was at a cost over Northern Ireland.

Many in the country, including Remainers, are also eager to move on from Brexit.

A Leave campaigner celebrates Britain's exit (Getty Images)

EU leaders are open to a no-tariff, no-quota pact but they are extremely wary of Britain turning into a Singapore-on-Thames able to outcompete their economies.

So they are demanding a “level playing” field to stop businesses on the Continent from being undercut by firms in the UK benefiting from a bonfire of regulations and standards.

Earlier this month, Chancellor Sajid Javid sparked alarm in the UK by appearing to rule out “alignment” with the EU, which seemed to be setting the country on course for a hard Brexit.

EU leaders are open to a pact wary of Britain turning into a Singapore-on-Thames to outcompete their economies

But then he rowed back by saying Britain would not “diverge for the sake of it”.

Inevitably, trade deals involve compromises and there will be winners and losers. Irish premier Leo Varadkar has bluntly made clear that if Britain wants the City to have good access to the EU single market, then it will be under pressure to allow foreign boats to continue fishing in its waters.

Fishing folk from Scotland were at the vanguard of the Brexit campaign but they may well find that their hopes of driving foreign boats out of UK waters are dashed on the rocks.

Pro-EU activists protest at Parliament Square (Getty Images)

Britain is not just negotiating a new trade deal with the EU, but also with America and many other countries, so more compromises will quickly emerge.

Donald Trump’s administration has signalled that it wants better and more lucrative access for the giant US pharmaceutical and agricultural industries to the UK, though some ministers strongly oppose allowing in products such as chlorine-washed chicken or more costly drugs for the NHS.

So the Government will be engaged in a multi-dimensional trade puzzle, giving ground to one country in one area, which will impact on another deal, all the time seeking to defend Britain’s best interests.

The Government will be engaged in a multi-dimensional trade puzzle

Expect winners in the UK to quietly rejoice and the losers to shout from the rooftops.

The vast majority of experts, including the Government in 2018, say Britain will be economically hit by Brexit, with £8.3 billion of taxpayers’ money already committed to preparing for the UK’s exit, and the blow to the UK since June 2016 put by one study at £200 billion by the end of the year.

The Bank of England yesterday predicted miserly growth of just 0.8 per cent for this year.

The Winston Churchill statue and Union flags in Parliament Square (PA)

But the UK will gain new freedoms after the end of the transition period, unleashed from the at times common denominator drag of EU membership, to pursue ambitions with potentially greater agility in fast-developing industries such as artificial intelligence and robotics.

It will regain firmer control of its borders, with the ending of free movement.

Fewer migrants from the EU may exacerbate workforce shortages, including in the NHS and healthcare sector, but it could lead to an even greater focus on training youngsters in the UK with the skills needed for key jobs.

Brexit is also about far more than economics

Brexit is also about far more than economics, including maintaining Britain’s reputation as a beacon for democracy which would have been strained if there had been a second referendum.

Brexiteers will also be championing the country taking back sovereignty, control of its borders and its laws, no longer having to follow controversial European Court of Justice rulings, though Remainers will say this is at a cost of lost supranational influence.

Pro-EU anti-Brexit protesters hold placards in Parliament Square (AFP via Getty Images)

Ministers believe that there will be a shift towards working more directly with certain key allies, for example Britain, France and Germany joining forces to try to defend the Iran nuclear deal which Donald Trump has abandoned.

With the country having voted by 52/48 per cent to Leave, how quickly bitter divisions in Britain over Brexit will heal may depend on whether it is largely successful for the country or a failure.

Brexiteers were willing to pay hundreds of thousands of pounds to get Big Ben to bong to celebrate Brexit. But after deliberations, the Government wisely steered away from such an act.

The real time for rejoicing will only come if Brexit turns out to be a moment of liberation and a prosperous new age for Britain.

The clock is ticking, only time will tell.

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