United Kingdom Nears Exit From European Union

European Parliament President David Sassoli, center, stands with British MEPs on Wednesday as they participate in a ceremony prior to the vote on the UK’s withdrawal from the EU. (AP Photo/Francisco Seco)

(CN) – The Union Jack is coming down in Brussels.

On Wednesday, the European Parliament overwhelmingly voted to approve a deal setting out the terms of the United Kingdom’s exit from the European Union, set to take place at 11 p.m. on Friday and end the U.K.’s 47-year-long membership.

The vote took place during a somber and emotional meeting of the massive parliament with members holding hands and singing a Scottish folk song – “Auld Lang Syne” – after the vote as a plea for the U.K. to rejoin the EU bloc in the future. Scotland’s government is seeking to do just that and wants to hold an independence referendum and rejoin the EU. Some British pro-EU parliamentarians shed tears after the song and embraced colleagues.

“This vote is not an adieu, but an au revoir,” said Guy Verhofstadt, a former Belgian prime minister and a parliamentary leader, during the debate before the vote, using the French term for “goodbye until we meet again.”

Brexit is now – nearly – official. With it, British flags fluttering alongside the 27 other member states in front of EU buildings in Brussels and elsewhere will be coming down, though without ceremony.

With Wednesday’s vote, the U.K.’s 73 members in the EU parliament also are removed as are British representatives in EU institutions, such as the European Commission, the executive body.

On Thursday, the European Council, a body made up of the EU’s heads of state, will need to approve the divorce deal too. But that step is a formality, much in the way Wednesday’s vote in the parliament was.

In London, the queen gave “royal assent” to the deal on Jan. 23, the final step for a law to take effect in Britain.

For more than a year, Britain’s departure from the EU was delayed after a deadlocked House of Commons rejected a divorce deal. The impasse was broken after British Prime Minister Boris Johnson won a decisive snap election in December and gained a solid majority in the House of Commons.

Wednesday’s vote by the European Parliament was 621-49 in favor of the deal. Under the deal, the U.K. and the EU have until the end of the year to reach a trade deal. During that period, EU laws and rules will remain in place in the U.K.

That deadline could be extended, but Johnson has insisted he won’t do that, raising the possibility of a messy and chaotic break in relations between the U.K. and the EU in January 2021.

Brexit remains a source of deep division in the U.K. and Europe with emotions running high Wednesday in the European Parliament.

Tensions got particularly heated when Nigel Farage, a longtime EU parliamentarian from Britain and a key architect of Brexit, got his chance to speak.

“So this is it, the final chapter, the end of the road, a 47-year political experiment that the British frankly have never been happy with,” Farage said.

He railed against the EU as an institution that has become too large and undemocratic.

“We love Europe, we just hate the European Union,” he said.

He said he wanted to see other countries leave the bloc and cause the EU’s collapse.

“I hope this begins the end of this project – it’s a bad project,” he said.

He added Britain will regain its freedom by leaving the EU.

“No more being talked down to, no more being bullied,” Farage said.

Next, he and other members of his Brexit Party took out small Union Jack flags and, disobeying the chamber’s rules, waved them in a political stunt that drew a rebuke from Mairead McGuinness, the parliament’s vice president who was presiding over the debate.

“We’re going to wave to you goodbye, and we’re going to look forward,” Farage said, drawing cheers from his party members and jeers from others in the chamber.

McGuinness cut off Farage’s microphone and ordered the Brexit Party members to put away their flags.

“That’s it, we’re gone,” Farage said as his supporters shouted, “Hooray! Hooray! Hooray!”

“Please sit down and resume your seats and put your flags away,” McGuinness said. “You’re leaving and take them with you if you are leaving now.”

Her rebuke drew a chorus of cheers, claps and whistles that drowned out the Brexit Party’s antics.

Still, most of the chamber’s members expressed their admiration for the U.K. and praised it for helping the EU become better.

“It is indeed sad to see a nation, a great nation, leave,” Verhofstadt said. “It is sad to see a country leave that twice liberated us, that twice gave its blood to liberate us.”

He said the EU needed to learn from Brexit and enact reforms to ensure that other countries aren’t tempted to leave the bloc too.

In his view, the EU made a grave mistake in the past when it gave the U.K. concessions and allowed it to opt out of EU policies. For example, the U.K. held onto its currency, the pound, when much of the rest of the EU adopted the euro.

“I think Brexit started the day we started to give exceptions,” Verhofstadt said. “In my opinion, Brexit is also a failure of the union. It is our failure.”

Instead of allowing members to opt in or out of EU rules and laws, he said the bloc needed to become even more integrated.

(Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.)

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