Britain readies to leave EU Friday night, begin 11-month transition

Britain is preparing to officially leave the European Union on Friday in a largely symbolic but historic moment, after more than three years of debate and bitter division over an uncertain future.

British flags line Parliament Square in London Friday behind a statue of former Prime Minister Winston Churchill. Britain officially exits the EU at 11 p.m. British time. Photo by Andy Rain

The moment Britain will no longer be a part of the EU will arrive at 11 p.m. London time (6 p.m. EST), which will mark the end of 47 years of membership and political and economic integration into the European community. It will be the first time any country has voluntarily left the EU bloc, which will be reduced to 27 member states.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson, one of the most visible and influential “leave” supporters during the June 2016 referendum, will issue a national pre-recorded video message an hour before the exit is official. His cabinet was scheduled to meet Friday in the northern city of Sunderland in a symbolic gesture to honor the occasion — as the city was the first to call for leaving the union after the polls closed in 2016.

When the clock strikes 11 p.m., though, there will be no obvious change. That moment will begin an 11-month transition period during which Britain will practically remain an EU member in everything but name. During that time, Johnson’s government will form a new EU relationship covering trade, immigration and other key matters.

Friday night, Britons will no longer officially be EU citizens, but they will have the same membership rights for a year through the transitional period.

Many ardent Brexit supporters were cautious about displaying triumphalism Friday, and instead focused on the future.

Johnson’s video message, rather than celebratory, is expected to be more optimistic.

“The most important thing to say tonight is that this is not an end but a beginning,” he will say in the message. “This is the moment when the dawn breaks and the curtain goes up on a new act. It is a moment of real national renewal and change.”

EU leaders marked Britain’s final day Friday with mixed feelings — wishing the nation luck but warning of potential trouble at the negotiating table if London insists on departing from EU standards.

“We want to have the best possible relationship with the United Kingdom but it will never be as good as membership,” European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen told reporters in Brussels.

ByDon Jacobson