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Cheers, tears and Auld Lang Syne: European Parliament approves Brexit withdrawal

The European Parliament gave final approval to Britain's divorce from the European Union on Wednesday, paving the way for the country to quit the bloc on Friday after nearly half a century and delivering a major setback for European integration.

Milestone marked, soon to give way to complex talks on future relationship between Britain, EU

British MEPs Jude Kirton-Darling, left, and Rory Palmer, right, each from the British Labour Party, react to the historic vote on Wednesday. (Yves Herman/Reuters)

The European Parliament gave final approval to Britain's divorce from the European Union on Wednesday, paving the way for the country to quit the bloc on Friday after nearly half a century and delivering a major setback for European integration.

After an emotional debate during which several speakers shed tears, EU lawmakers voted 621 for and 49 against the Brexit agreement sealed between Britain and the 27 other member states last October, more than three years since Britons voted to leave.

Thirteen lawmakers abstained and the chamber then broke into a rendition of Auld Lang Syne, a traditional Scottish folk song of farewell. Britain's 73 departing EU lawmakers headed for an "Au Revoir" party in the EU chamber after the vote.

Earlier on Wednesday, Britain's ambassador to the EU handed documents formalizing Brexit to a senior EU official. Against a backdrop of British and EU flags at the bloc's Brussels headquarters, Tim Barrow, smiling, passed over a dark blue leather file embossed with the emblem of the United Kingdom.

After protracted divorce talks, Britain will leave the club it joined in 1973 at midnight Brussels time on Friday (6 p.m. ET on Thursday), when British flags will be removed from EU offices and the EU flag lowered on the British premises there.

With a status-quo transition period running only until year-end, fresh talks — covering everything from trade to security —will begin soon on a new relationship.

"We are considering a zero tariff, zero quotas free-trade agreement. But the precondition is that EU and British businesses continue to compete on a level playing field. We will certainly not expose our companies to unfair competition," European Commission head Ursula von der Leyen told the chamber.

Members of parliament sang Auld Lang Syne after the one-sided vote, with many then rejoining to a party marking the milestone. (Yves Herman/The Associated Press)

Chief EU negotiator Michel Barnier told envoys of the remaining 27 members earlier on Wednesday that a loose association agreement like the EU has with Ukraine should serve as the basis for new relations, diplomatic sources said.

"We will not give ground on issues that are important to us," Barnier said, according to sources briefed on the closed-door meeting.

On his last working day as a member of the European Parliament, lead Brexit campaigner Nigel Farage told reporters there was "no going back" once the U.K. leaves.

"The U.K. didn't fit, we'd be better off out," he said, describing euro-skepticism as a settled view in the U.K., where the "leave" position won the 2016 referendum by a narrow margin of 52 to 48 per cent.

He said British Prime Minister Boris Johnson promised him there would be no so-called level playing field clauses on fair competition in the new EU-U.K. deal, highlighting a major point of contention with the bloc in the coming talks.

As Farage beamed, his Brexit Party lawmakers waved goodbye to the chamber with mini Union Jack flags and chanted "Hurray!," but their Socialist compatriot Jude Kirton-Darling choked back tears.

"It's probably the saddest day of my life so far. Brexit is something that attacks the very foundation of our identity," said Kirton-Darling, who plans to stay in Brussels with her Belgian husband.

British European Parliament member Nigel Farage drinks a beer after addressing European lawmakers in Brussels on Wednesday. (Francisco Seco/The Associated Press)

Guy Verhofstadt, a liberal EU lawmaker from Belgium and a staunch europhile, lamented Brexit as a historic debacle: "It's sad to see a country leaving that twice liberated us, twice gave its blood to liberate Europe."

As a new reality dawns on Europe from Saturday, the U.K.'s Permanent Representation to the EU, or UKRep, will become a foreign mission — already dubbed "UKmissEU" by some.

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