Britons counted down the hours Friday to their country’s departure from the European Union — some joyous, some sad, many just hopeful the divorce would mark the end of an anguished chapter in their country’s history. The 11pm London departure—6pm Washington time—comes 3½ years after the 52%-48% vote to walk away from the club that Britain had joined in 1973. Throughout the day, Brexit backers draped in Union Jack flags gathered outside Parliament in London to celebrate, the AP reports, their numbers growing and volume increasing as the time grew closer. Nearby, pro-Europeans waving the bloc’s blue-and-yellow flag came to commiserate. 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 date marks the end of the first stage of the Brexit saga. When Britons wake up Saturday, they will notice little change. The UK and the EU have an 11-month transition—in which the UK will continue to follow the bloc’s rules—in which to strike new agreements on trade, security and other areas. French President Emmanuel Macron called Brexit a "historic alarm signal" on Friday. "It's a sad day, let’s not hide it,” he said in a televised address. "But it is a day that must also lead us to do things differently." At EU Council headquarters in Brussels, Britain's flag was quietly removed with no leaders watching; an official simply folded it and walked away. The EU Commission president warned that the UK is heading for a lonelier existence. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson recorded an address to be broadcast an hour before the departure, in which he says it's "not an end but a beginning." Brexit champion Nigel Farage and his devotees planned to gather in Parliament Square for patriotic songs and speeches. Others were more low-key. "Many of us want to just mark our sadness in public," said one opponent marching in London.
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