Britain's membership in the European Union ends today at 11 p.m. British time, or midnight European time. The Union Jack, which now flies among the other member nations' flags outside of E.U. buildings, will be lowered. On Wednesday, the European Parliament voted to accept the terms of Britain's departure -- a formality by then -- and after the vote, European Parliament members pulled off their interpretation headphones, stood up, and sang "Auld Lang Syne," saying farewell to their former colleagues. After 47 years, Britain will be an E.U. member state no more.
Other than that, at least for the moment, don't expect a whole lot of change. British prime minister Boris Johnson finally succeeded in getting Brexit done by kicking the hard decisions down the road. He promised the remaining E.U. member states that Britain would abide by E.U. rules until the end of 2020, by which time Britain and the E.U. will have negotiated a new trade relationship. Or at least that's the plan.
It's a plan that's not very likely to come true, though. Brexit was voted in by referendum in the U.K. on June 23, 2016. Since then, British prime ministers Theresa May and Johnson have worked hard to negotiate a deal that would be acceptable to both the European Parliament and the British Parliament, and they failed again and again. Johnson is one of Brexit's most visible supporters, and his party's strong showing in a general election last month constituted a clear mandate from the British people to get Brexit finished and done with already. So he cleverly sidestepped the sticking points in Britain's negotiation with the E.U. by agreeing to formally leave the E.U. on January 31, but continue abiding by its rules until the end of the year while the two sides work out a deal.
Can they do it? The U.K. and E.U. will not even formally begin negotiating until March 3, leaving them less than 10 months to complete a deal that they have been unable to work out in more than three and a half years. Admittedly, with a solid majority for his Conservative Party in Parliament and a clear popular mandate, Johnson will have an easier time getting his Brexit deal approved in Britain than May did before him. But trade deals are complex things and European politicians never do anything quickly. I just don't think they have enough time.
There's a "cliff edge."
What happens if they don't? Things could get sticky. Leaked E.U. documents speak of a "cliff edge" if no deal is reached by the end of the year. At that point, Britain will "crash out" of the E.U. -- that is, leave without a trade agreement, also called hard Brexit. Of course, December 31, 2020, is an arbitrary deadline set by Johnson, and he can likely get an extension if he wants one. But he's promised to make no extensions and it's easy to see why. Starting tomorrow, the situation between the U.K. and E.U. will be what some Brexit supporters derisively call BINO -- Brexit in name only. That is, Britain will be formally out of the E.U., but since it will still be following the bloc's rules, not much will actually change.
So Johnson doesn't want to extend the deadline. On the other hand, economists have issued dire warnings about the effect of a no-deal Brexit, and ordinary people in Britain have been stockpiling things like canned tuna fish in anticipation of Brexit-related shortages. Presumably, Johnson doesn't want that either.
Add it all up, and people living in Britain, Britons living in Europe, and Americans who do business with either are in the same boat as before, facing a lot of unknowns. Just like before Brexit took effect, we'll have to wait and see how it all plays out.