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Britain leaves the EU, leaps into the unknown

Jill Lawless
Associated Press

London – So long, farewell, auf wiedersehen, adieu.

With little fanfare, Britain left the European Union on Friday after 47 years of membership, taking a leap into the unknown in a historic blow to the bloc.

The U.K.’s departure became official at 11 p.m. (2300GMT), midnight in Brussels, where the EU is headquartered. Thousands of enthusiastic Brexit supporters gathered outside Britain’s Parliament to welcome the moment they’d longed for since Britain’s 52%-48% vote in June 2016 to walk away from the club it had joined in 1973. The flag-waving crowd erupted in cheers as Big Ben bonged 11 times – on a recording. Parliament’s real bell has been silenced for repairs.

Brexiteers celebrate in London, Friday.

Whether Brexit makes Britain a proud nation that has reclaimed its sovereignty, or a diminished presence in Europe and the world, will be debated for years to come.

The now 27-member EU will have to bounce back from one of its biggest setbacks in its 62-year history to confront an ever more complicated world as its former member becomes a competitor, just across the English Channel.

The EU flag and Union Jack were lowered Friday outside Britain’s EU office in Brussels. Starting Saturday, it will become an embassy, with just the British flag flying.

It’s the first time a country has left the EU, and many in the bloc rued the day. In Brussels, EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen lamented that “as the sun rises tomorrow a new chapter for our union of 27 will start.”

But she warned Brexit day would mark a major loss for the U.K. and said the island nation is heading for a lonelier existence. “Strength does not lie in splendid isolation, but in our unique union.” Newspapers across the continent were marking the departure with headlines of “Adieu to Europe” and “Bye-Bye!” next to a Union Jack flag.

Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald, center, and deputy leader Michelle O'Neill, left, answer questions of journalists next to a sign rejecting Brexit, on the border of Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, Friday.

U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson was holding a Cabinet meeting in the pro-Brexit town of Sunderland, in northeast England. He is scheduled to deliver a pre-recorded address to the country an hour before departure, calling Brexit “not an end but a beginning.”

According to his office, he will describe it as “a moment of real national renewal and change.”

In a break with usual practice, independent media outlets were not allowed to film Johnson’s speech, which was recorded by the government at 10 Downing St.

The government is marking Brexit in what it intends to be a dignified, nontriumphalist fashion, with red, white and blue lights illuminating government buildings and a countdown clock projected onto the prime minister’s Downing Street residence.

Inside, Johnson will gather with Cabinet ministers, aides, civil servants and Brexit campaigners for a reception featuring English sparkling wine and canapes including shortbread with English blue cheese and roast beef with Yorkshire pudding.

Some Brexit supporters will be holding more raucous celebrations. Arch-Brexiteer Nigel Farage and his band of devotees will gather for patriotic songs and speeches in London’s Parliament Square to mark a moment that even Farage sometimes doubted would ever come.

Others do not feel like indulging in any festivities.

“It’s a very sad day,” said lawyer Alice Cole-Roberts. “I’m very upset that we are leaving the European Union and I simply wish it didn’t happen.”