LONDON — If you thought the drawn-out battle over the U.K.’s departure from the European Union was painful, wait until you see what comes next.
While Britain formally left the EU at 11 p.m. local time Friday, the hard work of building a new economic relationship between the bloc and its ex-member has just begun. There are difficult negotiations ahead as the U.K. goes its own way while trying to preserve links with its biggest trading partner, covering everything from tariffs and product standards to British industry’s ability to recruit foreign workers and the EU’s access to U.K. fishing grounds.
“There’s a massive agenda to be agreed: trade in goods, trade in services, data protection, security cooperation, aviation, road haulage, fishing, you know the list is endless,’’ said Jill Rutter, a senior research fellow at U.K. in a Changing Europe, a think tank that studies Britain’s relations with the now 27-nation bloc. “It is unprecedented.’’
For now, little has changed. The two sides agreed on a transition period that keeps current rules and regulations in effect until Dec. 31. But that gives the U.K. government just 11 months to negotiate a comprehensive trade deal that could decide the prospects of British businesses for decades to come. The EU accounted for 54 percent of Britain’s imports and 43 percent of its exports in 2016, according to the Office for National Statistics.
French President Emmanuel Macron published a letter on his Facebook page Saturday morning in English, addressed to his “dear British friends,” that sought a conciliatory tone.
“Never has France or the French people — or, I think it is fair to say, any European people — been driven by a desire for revenge or punishment,” he said.
Hours after Britain officially departed, a group of 17 members of the now diminished EU bloc sent a message that the union will remain strong despite losing one of its largest members.
“It’s the first day the European Union is with 27 member states, and in this moment of division, it is important to send a message of cohesion,” Portuguese Prime Minister Antonio Costa said Saturday.
Costa spoke before a meeting of the Friends of Cohesion, a group of member states from southern and eastern Europe interested in maintaining the EU funding that helps redistribute wealth in Europe.
With challenging trade talks expected to begin fairly quickly, British Industry groups are already lining up to protect their interests.
Hotel and restaurant owners say they need to maintain the existing supply of workers from the continent to ensure rooms are cleaned and dinners are prepared. Carmakers want to preserve prompt deliveries from European suppliers to avoid manufacturing delays.
Banks and insurance companies are lobbying to maintain access to the lucrative European market. And fishermen want to regain control of fishing grounds they believe have been plundered by European rivals for the past four decades.
If that wasn’t enough for Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his ministers, the British government also is keen to negotiate separate trade deals with individual countries now that the country has broken away from the EU.