(Bloomberg) — Prime Minister Boris Johnson said Brexit offers the U.K. an opportunity for “renewal and change” as he called on the divided nation to pull together in an address ahead of its split with the European Union.
“If we can get this right, I believe that with every month that goes by, we will grow in confidence not just at home but abroad,” Johnson said in a speech filmed by his office and released to media organizations. “I know that we can turn this opportunity into a stunning success.”
Johnson’s speech, released on his Facebook page at 10 p.m. — an hour before Britain formally leaves the EU — also extended the hand of friendship to the bloc, saying the split should herald “a new era of friendly cooperation between the EU and an energetic Britain.”
The U.K.’s departure from the bloc is a personal triumph for Johnson, who won a commanding majority in December’s election by promising to “get Brexit done” after three-and-a-half-years of wrangling since the 2016 referendum. He now faces 11 months of talks to agree a trade deal before a transition period — during which the U.K. will follow EU laws — ends on Dec. 31.
There was a hint of the difficulties ahead on Friday, when German Chancellor Angela Merkel warned the U.K. against diverging too far from the standards and regulations set by the bloc.
“The more Great Britain diverts from single market rules, naturally the stronger the changes to our future relations will be,” Merkel said in a statement.
The prime minister’s speech showed the two sides on collision course on the issue as he said Brexit would give the U.K. the chance to set its own rules and laws “for the benefit of the people of this country.” The EU “has evolved over 50 years in a direction that no longer suits this country,” he added.
Johnson told a meeting of his cabinet in Sunderland, northeast England, on Friday that the U.K. will aim to reach a “Canada-style” free trade agreement with the bloc and will seek to agree deals covering 80% of its global commerce within three years.
As crowds of chanting Brexit supporters gathered outside Parliament, the government sought to downplay events to mark the moment of Brexit itself, in order to avoid the appearance of triumphalism as the prime minister tries to heal the divisions in the country.
Johnson hosted a reception in his Downing Street office for ministers, civil servants and advisers who worked on Brexit. Guests were due to be served English sparkling wine and British canapes including shortbread with Shropshire blue cheese, fillet of lamb on toast, and Yorkshire puddings with beef and horseradish.
A commemorative light display was also on the program, including a clock projected onto Johnson’s office counting down the last hour of Britain’s EU membership, ending at 11 p.m. local time, midnight in Brussels.
Government offices along neighboring Whitehall were also lit up and union flags lined Parliament Square.
“We have taken back the tools of self-government,” Johnson said. “Now is the time to use those tools to unleash the full potential of this brilliant country and to make better the lives of everyone in every corner of our United Kingdom.”
–With assistance from Alan Crawford.
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