Brexit reflections: A bumpy ride down a long, winding road

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FILE - In this Wednesday, Nov. 6, 2019 file photo Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson speaks during an election campaign event for his ruling Conservative Party at the NEC, (National Exhibition Centre) in Birmingham, England. (AP Photo/Frank Augstein, File)

LONDON – So this is the way Britain’s European Union membership ends: Not with Big Ben’s bong, but with a whimper.

The bell won't toll when the moment finally comes ; Parliament's famous clock tower is undergoing repairs because it is crumbling and age-worn. At this point, who isn’t?

After 3½ years of wrangling and rancor, Britain is not so much leaving the EU in triumph as stumbling exhausted across the finish line, like a runner at the end of a marathon. With another marathon starting tomorrow.

There were years of late-night Brexit votes in the House of Commons, all-night EU summits and political drama as Britain’s relationship with its neighbors and its unwritten constitution were both stretched to the limit. It has been a frustrating, confusing, tiring, endlessly fascinating and agonizingly inconclusive journey.

One thing is certain: June 23, 2016, the date of Britain’s referendum on EU membership, feels like a long time ago.

The decision on whether or not to leave the bloc was bound to be divisive, dredging up deeply held notions of identity, sovereignty and allegiance. But the campaign was even more rancorous than many had predicted. When pro-EU Labour Party lawmaker Jo Cox was killed by a far-right extremist a week before the referendum, it felt like a dark chapter might be about to open.

Most opinion polls had suggested the U.K. would vote to remain in the EU, so the result was a shock to many politicians. Judging by his stricken look, it seemed to even surprise Boris Johnson, co- leader of the Vote Leave campaign.

But the clues had been there all along. Eight years after the 2008 financial crisis and six years into public spending cuts by Britain’s Conservative government, many voters were eager to defy the authorities in both London and Brussels.