At 11 p.m. — midnight in Brussels and 6 p.m. in New York — Britain officially left the European Union. Flags lined Parliament Square and the Mall, the ceremonial avenue leading to Buckingham Palace, and government buildings were lit up in the red, white and blue of the Union Jack.

A countdown clock was projected onto the front of 10 Downing Street, the prime minister’s official residence, along with a commemorative light display to “symbolize the strength and unity” of the United Kingdom.

“This is not an end but a beginning,” Prime Minister Bris Johnson said in a speech to the nation shortly before the official departure. “This is the moment when the dawn breaks and the curtain goes up on a new act.”

The departure, 1,317 days after Britain voted to leave the bloc, carries not only enormous symbolic weight but also significant legal consequences. It concluded three years of fractious debates over whether the country should really leave the bloc, the terms of its departure and the kind of relationship it should forge with Europe.

“We’ll have a couple months of people trying not to talk about it again, trying to pretend it’s not a thing that’s happening,” said Amanda Chetwynd-Cowieson, who led a group that tried to overturn Brexit. “But realistically it’s not going to be sorted in a year. It’s going to start rearing its head and opening divisions within families again.”

The departure marks the start of a transition period in which London and Brussels will hash out the terms of their future ties.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his cabinet began Friday with a meeting in Sunderland, a city in northern England that was the first to announce it had voted in favor of leaving the European Union on the night of the 2016 referendum.

It was the first of a handful of celebratory, but noticeably muted, official events to mark the day, suggesting that the pro-Brexit government wanted to avoid the appearance of gloating. In the referendum, 48 percent of voters wanted to remain part of the European Union, and later polls suggest that number may have grown since.

Source: The New York Times