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Brexit reflections: A bumpy ride down a long, winding road

January 31, 2020 GMT
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The Union flag is reflected in a puddle during an event called "Brussels calling" to celebrate the friendship between Belgium and Britain at the Grand Place in Brussels, Thursday, Jan. 30, 2020. The European Union grudgingly let go of the United Kingdom with a final vote Wednesday at the EU's parliament that ended the Brexit divorce battle and set the scene for tough trade negotiations in the year ahead. (AP Photo/Francisco Seco)
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The Union flag is reflected in a puddle during an event called "Brussels calling" to celebrate the friendship between Belgium and Britain at the Grand Place in Brussels, Thursday, Jan. 30, 2020. The European Union grudgingly let go of the United Kingdom with a final vote Wednesday at the EU's parliament that ended the Brexit divorce battle and set the scene for tough trade negotiations in the year ahead. (AP Photo/Francisco Seco)

LONDON (AP) — So this is the way Britain’s European Union membership ends: Not with Big Ben’s bong, but with a whimper.

The bell won’t toll when the moment finally comes ; Parliament’s famous clock tower is undergoing repairs because it is crumbling and age-worn. At this point, who isn’t?

After 3½ years of wrangling and rancor, Britain is not so much leaving the EU in triumph as stumbling exhausted across the finish line, like a runner at the end of a marathon. With another marathon starting tomorrow.

There were years of late-night Brexit votes in the House of Commons, all-night EU summits and political drama as Britain’s relationship with its neighbors and its unwritten constitution were both stretched to the limit. It has been a frustrating, confusing, tiring, endlessly fascinating and agonizingly inconclusive journey.

One thing is certain: June 23, 2016, the date of Britain’s referendum on EU membership, feels like a long time ago.

The decision on whether or not to leave the bloc was bound to be divisive, dredging up deeply held notions of identity, sovereignty and allegiance. But the campaign was even more rancorous than many had predicted. When pro-EU Labour Party lawmaker Jo Cox was killed by a far-right extremist a week before the referendum, it felt like a dark chapter might be about to open.

Most opinion polls had suggested the U.K. would vote to remain in the EU, so the result was a shock to many politicians. Judging by his stricken look, it seemed to even surprise Boris Johnson, co- leader of the Vote Leave campaign.

But the clues had been there all along. Eight years after the 2008 financial crisis and six years into public spending cuts by Britain’s Conservative government, many voters were eager to defy the authorities in both London and Brussels.

The aftermath of the narrow victory by anti-EU forces was clearly a time for healing and compromise. But that didn’t happen.

Brexit’s main backers, including Johnson, quit the scene rather than try to deliver on their promises. That left Britain in the hands of Prime Minister Theresa May, a remainer-turned-leaver who was mistrusted by both sides of the Brexit divide.

In the divorce negotiations that followed, the EU stayed firm while Britain battled itself. U.K. politicians who wanted to leave the EU couldn’t agree on the terms of a deal, and those who wanted to stay squabbled over strategy.

After an ill-judged snap election in 2017 cost May her majority in Parliament, the government essentially ceased to function, unable to pass laws or deliver its Brexit blueprint. Tempers rose on the street as rival protesters traded abuse, while politicians faced jeers and online death threats.

May couldn’t achieve Brexit, but she did rack up a string of political firsts, including the biggest defeat in Commons history for her Brexit divorce deal. She watched helplessly as pro-EU lawmakers, aided by assertive Commons Speaker John Bercow, seized control of Parliament’s agenda to try to force a change of course. But May’s opponents couldn’t agree on what to do, either.

May’s own Conservative lawmakers tried to depose her, but she hung on. The first Brexit day, long scheduled for March 29, 2019, was postponed to Oct. 31 of that year, and May was finally forced to admit defeat. She quit and was replaced in July 2019 by Johnson, a politician better known as someone who can entertain but not necessarily deliver.

At first, he faced the same paralysis. In a bid to break the deadlock, he suspended Parliament, a political nuclear option that was immediately challenged in the courts.

Brexit perhaps reached peak mayhem on Sept. 24, 2019. Johnson, in New York to address the U.N. General Assembly, learned at 5 a.m. that the U.K. Supreme Court had ruled that he’d broken the law and misled Queen Elizabeth II by misleading her about the reason for the suspension. Johnson argued it was routine, but the court ruled he was trying to avoid scrutiny of his Brexit plans.

Johnson and his aides cut short a trip that had been intended to showcase “global Britain” and flew back to London, and a political storm.

With just weeks to go before Brexit was due, Johnson vowed to leave the EU, with or without a deal. Pro-Brexit politicians increasingly talked about a no-deal Brexit — an idea never raised even during the referendum campaign — as an acceptable and even desirable outcome.

That came despite increasingly frantic warnings from businesses about the disruption that would ensue after such a break with Britain’s biggest trading partner.

Doug Bannister, chief executive of the Port of Dover, warned that traffic at Britain’s busiest port would be cut in half if there was a no-deal Brexit. “It’s not going to be OK,” he warned.

Suddenly, all those people setting up Brexit hoarder groups on Facebook didn’t seem so extreme.

Then, quite quickly, the political landscape changed. Johnson secured a new “oven ready” Brexit deal. He didn’t mention that it was remarkably similar to May’s rejected agreement — he just seemed to be able to sell it better.

Like May, Johnson gambled on a snap election. Unlike May, he won. Johnson campaigned on the simple promise to “Get Brexit Done,” which struck a chord with weary voters who just wanted the whole sorry saga to be finished.

Johnson’s party won 43.6% of the vote, not an overwhelming endorsement but enough in Britain’s political system for the biggest Conservative majority since Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s.

Johnson will achieve his goal at 11 p.m. London time on Friday. The commemorative tea towels and fridge magnets are already for sale on the Conservative Party website, proclaiming “Got Brexit Done.”

Not so fast.

In actuality, very little will change during an 11-month transition period.

But after that?

Will British firms be able to trade tariff-free with the EU? Will British students be able to go on European academic exchanges? Will British police be able to arrest suspects who have fled to the EU? All this and much more must still be negotiated, and Johnson has set an end-of-year deadline to secure a deal.

Britain may be leaving the EU, but the nature of its European identity and relationship with its neighbors are far from resolved.

Meanwhile, the work of Britain’s Parliament has gone back to what used to be normal. The government wins votes and the opposition loses them. The Labour Party, trounced in December’s election, licks its wounds and prepares to elect a new leader. Political journalists have started making evening plans again.

It’s quiet out there: too quiet.

It probably won’t last.

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Jill Lawless has covered the twists and turns of Britain’s Brexit saga since 2016.

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