Brexit: EU sombre as UK prepares to end 47 years of membership

Jennifer Rankin in Brussels
Photograph: John Thys/AFP via Getty Images

When the clock strikes midnight in Brussels on Friday, Britain’s 47 years in the European club of nations will be over.

At first nothing will change, as the UK enters an 11-month transition period that preserves the status quo. But there is one crucial exception: the UK will fall out of all EU decision-making bodies – and the consequences will be immediate.

On Friday evening, flags will be taken down, British access to EU diplomatic cables will be switched off, the UK will go beige on EU maps – the neutral colour of a foreign country.

Everyone knew this day was coming, but it will still be a big moment. “It will be very sad,” Margrethe Vestager, Europe’s competition commissioner, said. “I think it will bring back the feeling of the day of the referendum. The sorrow, it was tangible, it was almost something you could hold.”

On that grey midsummer morning in Brussels, some EU officials, British and non-British alike, cried in their offices, several EU sources have said. Then Brexit became a normal part of bureaucratic life. “Over the negotiating period of time you get distance, but on the day that [Brexit] will happen, it will bring back [those feelings],” Vestager said.

Others are more matter-of-fact about Brexit day. “Does it make us happy? No. Does it make us sad? No. Because it’s what we have worked for,” said one EU diplomat referring to the tortuous negotiations over the “divorce” agreement. “It’s a reality. It is a matter of fact. It is not a day to rejoice.”

At the end of the week, three EU presidents will mark this fracture in EU history: Ursula von der Leyen, head of the European commission, Charles Michel, chair of EU leader summits, and David Sassoli, European parliament president, are expected to issue a joint statement.

On the eve of Brexit day, the three leaders will gather in northern France for a “retreat” on the future of Europe at the house of Jean Monnet, the French statesman whose vision for peace through political integration helped create the European Coal and Steel Community, the precursor of the modern EU. Neither the timing, nor the venue seem accidental.

Details are still being worked out, reflecting the sensitivity of the moment. No entire country has ever left the EU before, so there is no protocol on how it works. There will be “no big ceremony, just a low-key message” said one source.

While Westminster will see a countdown clock projected on the walls of No 10, government buildings lit up and union jacks flying in Parliament Square, Brussels will be sombre.

British flags in the EU institutions will be taken down by maintenance workers, out of office hours, with no cameras to record the moment. One of the European parliament’s flags will be sent to the House of History, the EU-funded museum in Brussels. At the EU council of ministers, the nerve-centre of EU law-making, the union jacks will be taken down and put in a cupboard, along with those of other non-EU states, “third countries” as the EU refers to the rest of the world.

Related: The great British Brexit robbery: how our democracy was hijacked

From midnight, British diplomats will be locked out of Brussels internal databases, denied access to the diplomatic cables from 139 EU delegations around the world, draft legislation and internal memos that are the heartbeat of European decision-making. The switch-off only affects EU internal communications, as the UK will continue to have access to EU crime-fighting databases under the terms of the transition period. EU diplomats have received warnings to check that no British official is accidentally left on a classified mailing list.

The UK will be scrubbed a grey or beige colour on EU online maps, like Switzerland and Norway. Technicians are working to update hundreds of webpages to update references to the UK, from updating technical points on EU law, to the educational output aimed at teachers and children, such as online quizzes and the commission’s “Europe and you” activity book for children under nine.

At the European parliament visitors’ centre, miniature models of British MEPs are to be removed from mock-ups of the parliamentary chamber.

Artwork from the UK government art collection, currently on display at the European commission, such as Sonia Boyce’s screen print honouring black female singers, will remain on loan for the foreseeable future. The European parliament has no plans to rename its Winston Churchill building nor the Margaret Thatcher room.

When British diplomats come to work on Monday 3 February, they will no longer be able to walk into EU buildings. Passes and keys must be returned. The British can apply for a limited number of diplomatic passes to the European parliament, but are unlikely to get routine access to other institutions.

It will be a stark change for British diplomats, after decades of co-writing laws on the single market, wielding vetoes on taxation and driving forward EU foreign policy sanctions against rogue states. The British rooms in the council of ministers, where diplomats successfully strategised about reducing the EU budget during all-night talks fuelled by Haribo sweets and Nespresso coffee, will be left empty.

But the British are not leaving Brussels. The UK government office in Brussels, currently known as UKRep, will be rebranded, as it searches for new forms of influence outside the meeting rooms. The European flag flying at the door will be removed, a symbol of that change.

Since 2016, the number of Foreign Office staff has increased by 50%, while UKRep as a whole now employs 180 staff from 20 different Whitehall departments. Some extra staff were taken on to prepare for the UK’s doomed 2017 EU presidency, which never happened. Instead of Cameron’s planned agenda to turbocharge the single market, they found themselves preparing for life outside the world’s largest trading bloc.

For some EU diplomats, Brexit day brings relief. One likened the last few years of twilight membership to a divorced couple living in the same house, sleeping in separate bedrooms.

“This has been awkward for both sides,” the diplomat said, citing a recent dispute over a road-tolls regulation, where the UK could have inadvertently blocked the law by abstaining (in the end the law failed for other reasons).

“Everyone will miss the British input but [after 31 January] the awkwardness is over, then it’s a clean slate and we don’t have either UK delegation sitting there or an empty chair,” a reference to Boris Johnson’s policy of removing the British from EU meetings.

For some 31 January is just another part of the British unwinding, as they look to turbulent negotiations ahead.

“It is just another step that happens, it has been a long time coming,” said another diplomat. “They had already left in [so] many ways that we will not notice the difference.”

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