Britain’s exit from the European Union has arrived. Now what?

Britain's Union Jack flag flies in front of Big Ben in London, on Jan. 27, 2020.

At the stroke of 11 pm London time on Jan. 31, the United Kingdom will formally leave the European Union (12 pm in Brussels, where the now 27-member bloc is headquartered; 6 pm ET). It’s the first time a country has left the EU. 

In some respects, it’s the end of the U.K’s 47-year participation in a project that grew out of the ashes of a Europe wracked by the humanitarian and economic stresses and strains of World War II. But the exit process is not completely done and dusted. Here’s what’s happening with Brexit, and what comes next.   

Marking the occasion but few celebrations 

The authorities have been careful to organize a series of toned-down events rather than outright festivities. This reflects the deep divisions in the county over Brexit.

Among the initiatives: A commemorative 50 pence (65 cents) coin will come into circulation. It will say “peace, prosperity and friendship with all nations.” Prime Minister Boris Johnson will address the nation, saying, among other things that “Brexit is not an end but a beginning”; a chance for Britain to reclaim its national sovereignty. Not everyone agreed with that sentiment. There will be a light display in Downing Street – Johnson’s official office and residence – including a clock counting down from 10 pm, but Big Ben will not chime out. Other buildings around Whitehall, home to many U.K. government offices in London, will also be lit up and Union Jack flags will line Parliament Square and the Mall.

On Wednesday, members of the European Parliament joined hands and sang “Auld Lang Syne,” a song with words attributed to the national poet of Scotland, Robert Burns, in an emotional farewell to the U.K.’s membership.

In Scotland, which overwhelmingly voted to remain in the bloc, the EU flag will not be lowered outside the Scottish Parliament on Friday night. Instead, lawmakers there have decided to keep it as a symbol of their opposition to Brexit.

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What actually changes after Jan. 31?

Not much. U.K. citizens will no longer officially be EU citizens as part of legal and constitutional changes. But many of the same laws and rules will stay the same for the next year or so as the U.K. and EU negotiate the specific terms of the exit.

This means, for example, that U.K. passport holders will still be able to travel and work in the EU because the country will remain in the so-called single market for a transition period expected to last up to Dec. 31. Until then, the freedom of movement of goods, people, services and capital over borders that is a key aspect of EU membership still applies. So, somewhat counterintuitively, the U.K. will technically be out of the EU but still forced to abide by its membership terms. 

What happens next?

In late Feb. or March, the U.K. and EU are expected to begin negotiations that will determine the future status of a range of policies affecting security, trade, borders, diplomacy, fishing rights, human rights, educational ties and more. The aim is to have agreements in place that cover all these areas by the end of 2020.

“Getting Brexit done, in the sense of leaving the European Union was, in a way, the easy bit,” said Anand Menon, director of The UK in a Changing Europe, a research institute that analyzes the relationship between the U.K. and EU.

“Now, the government confronts the challenge not only of successfully concluding a set of complex negotiations in under a year, but also putting in place structures and policies to replace those of the EU. And perhaps most important and most challenging of all, it must address the political imperatives created by Brexit and its aftermath. These are sizeable and complex challenges, to say the least,” added. 

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One of the most contentious parts of the negotiations is trade.

By leaving the EU, the U.K. is giving up its tariff-free arrangements with the bloc and senior figures in Britain’s government who lobbied for an EU exit claimed a quick U.S.-U.K. trade deal as a major prize of Brexit. U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin has previously said he believes such a deal can happen this year. President Donald Trump supports it. However, the timing may depend on how quickly the U.K. can ink its EU departure arrangements.

Also jeopardizing a post-Brexit U.S.-U.K. trade deal: A U.K. decision to allow Chinese state-supported telecom giant Huawei to build parts of its 5G internet network. Washington has opposed the move on national security grounds, arguing it leaves the U.K., and by extension the U.S. – because of intelligence sharing – subject to the whims of Beijing and possible Chinese espionage. 

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