It’s the end of the beginning, and perhaps the beginning of the end.
At midnight Friday Brussels time, Britain, after 47 years of being part of shaping the process of European integration, formally leaves the European Union. The Union Jack disappears from the flagpoles in Brussels, and all British representatives leave the meetings, committees and institutions of the E.U.
That’s what happens — but not much more.
For at least the rest of the year, all the laws, rules and regulations, as well as the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice, will continue to apply in Britain. And the country will remain in the customs union and single market.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson has set a deadline for himself to negotiate a satisfactory agreement on what happens when Britain really leaves. Time is extremely short. Talks will likely start in March, and by the end of June the British government must decide whether it should seek another year of being de facto in the E.U. or not.
Few believe that a full agreement on the future relationship can be negotiated in the time available. A limited free trade agreement for goods might be possible, but even that is uncertain, and more complex issues can hardly be separated from the package. On trade in services, Britain has a profound interest in as much free access to the European markets as possible, and fishing rights is always an issue filled with emotions beyond any rationality.
A somewhat philosophical point is the extent to which the British government wants to deviate from E.U. standards in the years to come. But for all practical purposes, the E.U. needs to set up the border controls and procedures as if this was going to happen, whether or not it does.
In the annals of trade negotiations, these will be truly unique. Normally, one negotiates about taking down barriers to trade. In this case, it will be a negotiation in which barriers go up. But for both the E.U. and Britain, it will have to be an exercise in damage limitation.
Damage there will be. Economists are discussing the numbers, but the analysis published by the British government itself estimates that over time, the British economy per capita under a raw free trade agreement will be 5 percent smaller than it otherwise would have been. That adds up to billions of pounds.
In the Brexit mythology, this will all be compensated by fabulous new trade agreements that Britain will be able to conclude all over the world. These agreements have to be truly fantastic to make up for the worse conditions over the nearly 50 percent of its exports that go to the E.U.
The E.U. has approximately 600 agreements of different sorts on all sorts of issues all over the world, and these will suddenly cease to apply to Britain when the real Brexit occurs. With Norway alone, there are no less than 38 different agreements. Even if some of these can just be rolled over into bilateral agreements, this doesn’t apply to them all. It will be a herculean task for Britain to negotiate deals just to take things back to the starting point of Brexit.
And trade is just part of the immense network of relations and interdependence that have developed over nearly half a century of common endeavor across the economies and societies. Rules governing data transfers must be sorted out, as well as how to manage cooperation in the critically important areas of justice and home affairs. There is good will on both sides — but also significant hurdles to overcome.
Security issues belong in this category, though defense issues lie primarily in NATO and different bilateral arrangements. The command of E.U. military missions has already been transferred from British locations. Britain will no longer be part of the Galileo satellite navigation network, but what happens with other important space assets and programs is unclear.
It is unclear how London will pursue its foreign policy when it is no longer part of the machinery in Brussels, having left the important role it always had in shaping E.U. positions. It will certainly be under pressure from Washington. Signs of stumbling have already been noticed.
Apart from the critical task of trying to get an agreement with the E.U., Britain’s most important task will be to secure an agreement at the COP26 global climate change conference in Glasgow, Scotland, in November. This will be far from easy. And in this effort, Britain will be closely aligned with the E.U. — and miles from where the Trump administration is.
Brexit now is the end of the beginning. The beginning took some time and turned out to be far more complicated than foreseen. There is very little to indicate it will be different as the process now enters the beginning of the end.
Carl Bildt is a former prime minister of Sweden and a contributing columnist for The Post.