Saturday 1 February 2020 5:53 AM UTC
LONDON Feb 1: When the sun goes down on Friday night, British government buildings around Europe will lower the blue and yellow-starred flag of the European Union for the final time. A few hours later, on the stroke of midnight in Paris, Berlin and Brussels, the U.K. will leave the bloc after 47 years.
The farewell is intentionally muted. Neither the British government nor the EU wants to draw too much attention to the moment of rupture, particularly with negotiations over the two sides’ future relationship in areas such as trade, security and financial services, set to be even trickier than the wrangling over the U.K.’s withdrawal over the past 3 years.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel used a statement to describe Brexit as a significant blow “to us all,” while French President Emmanuel Macron in a speech on Friday decried the “lies, exaggerations and simplifications” of the Brexit campaign and spoke of the need for “more” Europe.
EU Parliament President David Sassoli described the U.K.’s departure as a “wound.”
Merkel repeated EU warnings that the more the U.K. diverges from EU single market rules, the looser the future partnership will be.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said the U.K. will be treated like all non-EU countries after midnight and can’t expect any special treatment.
“Only those who recognize the rules of the internal market can fully benefit from the common market,” she said. EU officials said they expect negotiations to get nasty.
With Britain to slip into a transition period until the end of 2020, which keeps the country in the EU in all but name, but without any decision-making powers, Brexit day is more about symbolism than anything else.
Some of the logistics haven’t been straightforward. A few days ago the U.K. government’s representation in Brussels quietly swapped its two flag poles on its facade for a single one carrying both British and EU flags.
Losing one flag will look less conspicuous. In Sofia, the British embassy will lower its EU stars but, because it shares a building with the European Investment Bank, the flag will go back up on Monday morning.
f the Union Jack, while Austria unveiled a Brexit-themed stamp (complete with the original planned date of Brexit, March 29, 2019, as well as the eventual one.) Gibraltar, the British territory on the southern tip of Spain that became a point of contention in the withdrawal negotiations, will hold a ceremony at midnight to lower the EU flag and replace it with the banner of the Commonwealth.
France’s Le Figaro bid “Adieu” to Britain on its front page while members of the Irish government got up before dawn to check out new inspection facilities at Dublin port which will control goods coming from the U.K. across the Irish Sea — the EU’s new external border.
Portuguese Prime Minister Antonio Costa paid tribute to a “new relationship with our old friend, ancestral ally and forever partner,” but with the EU due to publish its mandate for negotiations on the future relationship on Monday, there’s little time for anybody either to celebrate or wallow in regret.
“I know the public are fed up talking about Brexit, and so am I quite frankly,” Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney said on Friday. “But we don’t have the luxury of not talking about Brexit.”
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