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That’s it, then. We’ve left. Still a lot to sort out, of course, but after the European parliament ratified the withdrawal agreement, singing Auld Lang Syne as emotional British MEPs left the chamber for the last time, it all accelerated.
In Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon called for unity and focus in the push for Scottish independence while playing down the chances of a referendum this year; in England, leavers celebrated from Westminster to West Yorkshire.
As Big Ben was projected on to the front of No 10 and the countdown to the 11pm exit began, Boris Johnson acknowledged there were “many … who feel a sense of anxiety and loss”, but promised to “spread hope and opportunity to every part of the UK”.
On the continent, Emmanuel Macron warned that Brexit was an “alarm signal” of huge historic significance and said the leave campaign was based on “lies, exaggerations and cheques that were promised but will never come”.
Ursula von der Leyen, the European commission president, said Europe would “defend its interests in a determined manner. Only those who acknowledge the rules of the internal market can benefit from the common market.”
And so after 47 years, Britain’s membership of the EU came to an end. It did not take long for the ante to start being upped ahead of the next stage of the process: talks on the future relationship, due to begin in early March.
The EU said it would back Spain over its territorial claims to Gibraltar by giving Madrid the power to exclude the British overseas territory from any trade deal with Brussels; Dominic Raab, the foreign secretary, said legislative alignment “just ain’t happening” and denied that checks in the Irish Sea were “indispensable” .
More or less simultaneous statements by the British prime minister and Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, underlined the gulf between the two sides as officials prepared for the upcoming talks.
Johnson made clear that he would push for a free trade deal with zero tariffs, similar to the EU’s with Canada, but said he was not prepared to accept EU demands for regulatory alignment in order to get it. Instead, the UK would prefer the kind of relationship the EU has with Australia, which involves tariffs.
Barnier said Johnson had already agreed in the political declaration to stay true to EU rules on state aid, competition, social and environmental standards, climate change and tax. “There can’t be possibly any surprise on the British side to hear that,” Barnier said. “He and his team paid attention … to the text that commits us both.”
Negotiations due to start on 3 March will be divided into 12 strands with parallel talks on a rolling three-week basis; before then, the two sides will be in “scheduling and scoping” discussions to prepare for the talks.
A 40-person taskforce inside No 10 will run the negotiations on the UK side, headed by Johnson’s Europe adviser, David Frost. The EU will be led by the familiar figure of Barnier.
The priority for both sides is to negotiate a free trade agreement that will form the basis of their new future economic relationship, with the objective being zero-quota, zero-tariff trade in goods. The EU has said it will only agree to that if the UK pledges zero dumping; Johnson has said the UK will not be bound by the EU rulebook.
Other clashes can be expected over the EU’s refusal to bring financial and other services into the trade deal, and over fishing, as the EU seeks to link goods trade to continued access to British waters. The talks will also include many non-trade issues such as security, foreign affairs, data, and cultural and educational ties, some of which are likely to prove equally tricky.
My colleague Jennifer Rankin has a very good summary of the two sides’ positions.
Best of the rest
Brexit has happened, the Guardian editorial said. It is a defeat to be mourned. But the country will face big choices about its place in the world:
Our departure is a tragic national error, against which this newspaper has consistently argued. It is still opposed by around half of the population, by majorities in Scotland, Northern Ireland and London, and by most young people, all of whom are just as patriotic as those whose cause has won the day. It is a defeat to be mourned and learned from … The Guardian, at least, is not leaving Europe. We are a European news organisation. Europe is our back yard. It’s in our hearts and it’s in our DNA. We will do everything we possibly can to report on Europe, to Europe, and for Europe. Perhaps, like many pro-Europeans, we haven’t done everything we could have done over the last 47 years to burnish the links. The lesson for us all is to do more, and to do it better. Long live Britain. Long live Europe.
From a Dutch MEP: