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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 24 January 2021

CORONAVIRUS

Big Ben rings in Brexit and a subdued new year

Coronavirus lockdowns bring an eerie quiet to capital cities across Europe

Britain’s world famous Big Ben chimed in Brexit as the EU marked the first departure from the bloc that was built in the ruins of the Second World War.

As EU nations such as France and Germany celebrated a subdued new year and marked Brexit at 11pm, the UK honoured the moment by letting Big Ben, from behind the scaffolding of a multimillion-pound makeover, to ring out.

For Britain, 2021 was still an hour away but like the rest of the continent, the coronavirus seemed to take precedent over new starts and new years.

In the squares and riverside paths below Big Ben, there were no cheers from jubilant Brexit crowds, or any crowds.

Westminster Bridge, the nearest River Thames crossing to Parliament, was nearly deserted with just a handful of people walking across, rather than the tens of thousands who usually cram on to the bridge to watch fireworks.

London was largely quiet under a coronavirus-enforced lockdown that includes closing all restaurants except for takeaways and orders to work from home.

The new UK-EU trade deal brings its own restrictions and red tape, but for British Brexit supporters, it means reclaiming national independence from the EU and its web of rules.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson, whose support for Brexit helped to push the country out of the EU, said it was “an amazing moment for this country”.

“We have our freedom in our hands and it is up to us to make the most of it,” he said in a New Year video message.

The break came 11 months after a political Brexit that left the two sides in the limbo of a transition period.

Big Ben rang out for Brexit. AFP
Big Ben rang out for Brexit. AFP

It was a day some had been longing for and others had been dreading since Britain voted in a 2016 referendum to leave the EU, but it turned out to be something of an anti-climax.

In the June 23 referendum, 17.4 million voters, or 52 per cent, backed Brexit while 16.1 million, or 48 per cent, backed staying in the bloc.

The vote showed a UK divided about much more than the EU, and fuelled soul searching about matters ranging from secession and immigration to capitalism, the legacy of empire and what it now means to be British.

Leaving the EU was once the far-fetched dream of a motley crew of eurosceptics on the fringes of British politics.

But the turmoil of the eurozone crisis, attempts to integrate the EU further, fears about mass immigration and discontent with leaders in London helped Brexiteers to win the referendum with a message of patriotic, if vague, hope.

In Berlin, Germany, there was music and fireworks at the Brandenburg Gate but no people watching.

“There is a ban on gatherings throughout the city this year, both on New Year’s Eve and on New Year’s Day, and we are on site with sufficient forces to monitor compliance with the ban,” said Berlin police spokeswoman Undine Schmidt.

"Of course, there is also a special focus on infection control."

Germany also congratulated Portugal for taking over the rotating presidency of the EU.

Parisian streets were also near empty as 2021 began. French police manned checkpoints in the capital, as the country’s coronavirus restrictions continued into the new year.

The country has not instituted a national lockdown but rising case numbers prompted a national curfew of 8pm to 6am, while venues in the capital are closed.

Updated: January 1, 2021 01:04 PM

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