Brussels: The European Union’s top leaders on Friday said they expect the UK to act on its momentous vote to leave the union “as soon as possible, however painful that process may be” and that there will be “no renegotiation”.
Britons voted 51.9 per cent for Brexit against 48.1 per cent of ‘Remain’ vote in a historic referendum on Thursday.
Britain joined the European Union on January 1 in 1973.
The presidents of the European council, commission and parliament — Donald Tusk, Jean-Claude Juncker and Martin Schulz respectively — and Mark Rutte, the prime minister of the Netherlands which holds the EU’s rotating presidency, said any delay in Britain’s exit would “unnecessarily prolong uncertainty”.
After emergency talks in Brussels, the four said they regretted, but respected Britain’s decision, The Guardian reported.
“This is an unprecedented situation, but we are united in our response,” they said in a joint statement.
The UK — the first sovereign country to vote to leave — would remain a member until exit negotiations were concluded, they said.
Europe expected it to “give effect to this decision … as soon as possible” by triggering article 50 of the Lisbon treaty, which is effectively Britain’s formal letter of resignation.
The special settlement negotiated by David Cameron earlier this year was void and could not be renegotiated, they said.
German chancellor Angela Merkel expressed “great regret” at Britain’s decision, but said the EU should not draw “quick and simple conclusions” that might create new and deeper divisions. The union’s foundation was “the idea of peace”, she said.
French president François Hollande in Paris said he “profoundly regrets” the Brexit vote but that the EU now had to make changes.
Hollande said the vote would put Europe to the test: “To move forward, Europe cannot act as before.”
Schulz said he would speak to Merkel about “how to avoid a chain reaction” of other EU states following Britain.
“The chain reaction being celebrated everywhere now by Eurosceptics won’t happen,” he said.
The EU was the world’s biggest single market and “Britain has just cut its ties with that market. That’ll have consequences, and I don’t believe other countries will be encouraged to follow that dangerous path,” he said.
Tusk earlier said the EU’s 27 remaining members would meet next week to assess their future without Britain, warning that there was “no way of predicting all the political consequences of this event — especially for the UK. It is a historic moment, but not a moment for hysterical reactions.”
Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel called for a special “conclave” of EU leaders as early as next month. “We need to keep a cool head and need to see what new way of cooperation would be possible,” he said.
Italy’s Prime Minister Matteo Renzi tweeted: “We must change it to make it more human and more just. But Europe is our home, it’s our future.”
Lars Loekke Rasmussen, Danish Prime Minister, said Denmark “belongs in Europe” but said mounting Euroscepticism must be taken seriously.
In Greece, there was concern that the referendum result would intensify anti-European sentiment.
“In the short term, Brexit may help Greece, because our allies will want to solidify and show solidarity,” a senior minister said. “But in the long term, it will not. The prospect of Grexit will increase.”
Turkey, whose future membership of the EU played a key role in the UK referendum campaign, cast doubt on the likelihood of it joining in the aftermath of the Brexit vote.
“The European Union’s disintegration has started,” Deputy Prime Minister Nurettin Canikli tweeted. “Britain was the first to jump ship.”
The UK was the EU’s second-largest economy and largest military power. It will embark on the process of leaving as the union grapples with multiple crises: huge numbers of migrants, economic weakness and a nationalist Russia seeking to overturn the post-cold war order.
The UK has to negotiate two agreements: a divorce treaty to wind down British contributions to the EU budget and settle the status of the 1.2 million Britons living in the EU and three million EU citizens in the UK; and an agreement to govern future trade and other ties with its European neighbours.
Tusk has estimated that both agreements could take seven years to settle “without any guarantee of success”. Most Brussels insiders think this sounds optimistic.
There were early warnings of difficulties ahead. The German MEP Elmar Brok, who chairs the European parliament’s committee on foreign affairs, said the parliament would call on Juncker to strip the British commissioner, Jonathan Hill, of the financial services brief with immediate effect and turn him into a “commissioner without portfolio”.
“They will have to negotiate from the position of a third country, not as a member state. If Britain wants to have a similar status to Switzerland and Norway, then it will also have to pay into EU structural funds like those countries do. The British public will find out what that means.”
On paper, nothing changes immediately. The UK remains an EU member until it has finalised the terms of its divorce and is obliged to follow all EU rules.
In theory, the UK retains the decision-making privileges of membership; in reality, power will rapidly drain away and British diplomats can expect to be marginalised in the councils of Brussels.
The UK will keep its veto in some areas, such as tax and foreign policy, but diplomats say Britain’s voice on other EU decisions, for example economy and business, will count for little.