As the United Kingdom prepares to leave the European Union (E.U.) on Friday, people are divided over how to mark a historic moment that some are relishing but others are dreading.
Britain’s 2016 vote on E.U. membership split the country: Fifty-two percent opted to leave the 28-nation bloc, 48 percent voted to stay. Since then, years of fighting over how Britain would leave have not healed the divide.
For pro-Europeans, the departure on Friday will be the sad moment Britain abandons a project that brought nations together that were once at war with one another. It created a huge free-trading zone of a half-billion people and let Europeans study, work and live across the continent.
For supporters of a British exit, or “Brexit,” it will be the instant the United Kingdom (U.K.) once again becomes a fully independent nation after 47 years of membership in an expensive club with too many rules.
“It’s a momentous occasion,” said Brexit Party Chairman Richard Tice, who plans to join party leader Nigel Farage and thousands of supporters for a party outside Parliament on Friday night. “It’s a great celebration of the democratic will. And it’s right to celebrate it.”
Organizers say there will be music, songs, speeches, a light show and a New Year’s Eve-style countdown in the shadow of Parliament’s clock tower. They had hoped it would also be marked by the sound of the giant Big Ben bell, whose hourly bongs are a famous symbol of British democracy.
But Big Ben has been mostly silent since 2017 while the clock tower is being repaired, and officials said bringing it back for one night could cost about $650,000.
Brexit supporters came up with a Plan B.
“We will play the sound of Big Ben chiming, that wonderful sound, loudly through our excellent speaker system,” Tice said. “And in 50 years’ time . . . this will be the image of the U.K. leaving the European Union [on January 31, 2020].”
Many Britons don’t share his excitement.
“Spending [$650,000] to ring a few bells is just silly. People who want to do it are off their trolley, frankly,” said Tony Greaves, a Liberal Democrat member of the House of Lords, one of two houses that make up Parliament.
Greaves warned colleagues this week that many people feel a sense of loss about Brexit.
“A lot of people will not be celebrating. They’ll be feeling very sad and very glum,” he said. “People are saying we want to bring the country together now after the division. This is the last possible way to do it.”
Britain was divided when the country entered into what was then the European Economic Community at the start of 1973. There were quiet demonstrations by activists on both sides but no major festivities.
“Britain passed peacefully into Europe at midnight last night without any special celebrations,” the Guardian newspaper reported on January 1, 1973. “It was difficult to tell that anything of importance had occurred.”
On Friday, the British prime minister is scheduled to make a televised address, stressing unity and the healing of divisions.
Historian Margaret MacMillan said that if ever there were a time for British understatement, this is it.
“It is not a time for celebration. It is a time for reconciliation,” said MacMillan, a professor at the University of Toronto in Canada. “If the prime minister really wanted to be prime ministerial, he could say, ‘Look, we’ve had a long, difficult disagreement, but let’s sit down and be friends again,’ and just have a tea party or something.”
What started as the European Economic Community had just six members. By 2013, it had 28 members. Until Britain departs, the only members to leave the group were colonies or territories that later gained independence or the right to govern themselves. Here’s how the E.U. grew over the years:
1958: Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Luxembourg, Netherlands
1973: Denmark, Ireland, United Kingdom
1986: Portugal, Spain
1995: Austria, Finland, Sweden
2004: Cyprus, Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, Slovakia, Slovenia
2007: Bulgaria, Romania