Brexit sets EU on crisis mode, leaders confront worse case scenario behind closed doors

Flags fly outside Europe House, the European Parliament's British offices, in central London, with European flag, right, and Britain's Union flag. (Lauren Hurley/AP)


Addis Ababa, June 24, 2016 (IMC):- European leaders went into crisis mode Friday after the surprise vote by Britain to exit the European Union, locking themselves inside emergency meetings even as nationalists across the region issued rallying cries to follow in London’s footsteps.


From Paris to Dublin to Berlin, heads of state confronted their worst-case scenarios and scrambled to form a consensus on how to now extricate Britain from the 28-nation bloc, as British Prime Minister David Cameron said he planned to step down in defeat. Top leaders of the E.U.’s executive and legislative branches, meanwhile, were meeting over the course of the morning in Brussels. E.U. ambassadors — all 28 of them, for now — expect to convene this afternoon in Luxembourg before foreign ministers from the six founding E.U. nations were set to meet in Berlin on Saturday.

The flurry of diplomacy was laying the groundwork for a previously planned E.U. leaders summit on Tuesday, where talks on how to handle what could be a painful, messy process of a Britain exit are set to start. Cameron said he did not plan to immediately trigger the clause of the European treaty that would start exit negotiations. That would put a two-year clock on the divorce talks.

“I do not think it would be right for me to try to be the captain that steers our country to its next destination,” Cameron said.

Even as key political figures reacted with shock — “Damn! It’s a sad day for the E.U.,” tweeted Germany’s Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel — others cautioned that it was now up the E.U. to prove its worth to the people of the continent. The E.U., critics say, has veered too far from its initial concept as a customs and economic union, meddling in national budgets and labor laws while seeming a remote bureaucracy to many across the region it serves.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, on whose head falls most the burden of holding the E.U. together, called Britain’s departure a “turning point in Europe and of European integration” and offered an impassioned plea for the rest of the bloc to stick together. She also called for swift but fair breakup negotiations with London in a way that designs “our partnership with Britain as closely as possible.”

The rest of the E.U. nations, she said, should not forget that at the core of the bloc was a mission greater than economics or politics. She called for the remaining states to stick together in globalized times.

With a nod to history, she emphasized that Germany had a “responsibility” to ensure Europe’s peaceful future with or without Britain in the E.U.

“We should never forget, especially in these times, that the idea of the European Union was an idea of peace,” she said. “After centuries of most terrible bloodshed, the founders of the European integration found the way to reconciliation.”

The challenge that leaders faced was not only the mechanics of a Britain exit, but also how to make the bloc feel more relevant to the region’s grass roots to ensure its survival.

“The British vote puts the European Union in difficulty. We must be aware of its shortcomings,” French President François Hollande said, adding that he planned to travel to Berlin on Monday to meet with Merkel, the remaining partner in a French-British-German power triangle that on Friday suddenly lost one of its corners.

“A domino effect on other countries can’t be ruled out,” Austrian foreign minister Sebastian Kurz told Austrian broadcaster ORF Friday.

Speaking Friday, Donald Tusk, president of the European Council, vowed that E.U. law would still apply in Britain until such time as it officially leaves. He said he had spoken to the region’s leaders and vowed to pursue continued European unity.

But he conceded reflection on the future of the bloc was needed.

“I have proposed to the leaders that we consider a wider reflection on our union,” he said. “These last years have been the most difficult in the history of our union. . . . But what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”

European leaders “regret this decision but respect it,” European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said at a news conference in Brussels. He said that E.U. leaders would move swiftly to start exit negotiations with Britain, which he said he hoped would be concluded as quickly as possible.

When asked by a journalist whether the decision spelled the end of the E.U., he shook his head no and walked out of the room to laughter and applause.

Amid sharp falls in both the British pound and the euro, many conceded the path ahead would be hard.

“The United Kingdom has decided to leave and this means that it will go its own way,” Martin Schulz, president of the E.U. parliament, told German public broadcaster ZDF. “I think the economic data show this morning that it will be a very difficult way.”

Anti-E.U. forces across Europe, meanwhile, awoke Friday with jubilation. Nationalists on the continent immediately called for similar referendums to leave. In the Netherlands, right-wing leader Geert Wilders, already rising in the polls there, lauded the British vote.

“Hurrah for the British! Now it is our turn. Time for a Dutch referendum!” he tweeted under the hashtag #ByeByeEU.

In France, Marine Le Pen, eyeing next year’s presidential race as the leader of the French anti-E.U. National Front party, staked out the promise of a referendum on “Frexit” — or a French exit — as a campaign pledge.

“Victory for liberty! As I have demanded for years, it is now time to have the same referendum in France and in E.U. countries,” she wrote on Twitter.

And Euroskeptic politicians in Sweden and Denmark called for referendums of their own.

The presumptive Republican presidential nominee, Donald Trump, also weighed in with jubilation, telling reporters during a business-focused trip to one of his golf resorts in Scotland that Britons “took back their country. That’s a great thing.”

Britain may face tough terms for an exit and may struggle to withdraw — as many exit supporters suggested — while still maintaining free access to the 27 nations that form the world’s largest integrated consumer market. The E.U. stance, as with many major decisions, will come down largely to the positions of Germany and France, which are likely to drive a hard bargain with London to discourage domestic copycats.

“We respect the result of the British referendum,” German finance minister Wolfgang Schäuble told reporters in Berlin. “I would have wished for a different result. Now we have to look forward and deal with this situation.”

Other, smaller countries — particularly in Eastern Europe — have sent hundreds of thousands of citizens to work in Britain and may seek a gentler tone, in part to spare their expats.

“Punishment is not going to be the best way to consolidate forces,” said Lithuanian Foreign Minister Linas Linkevicius in an interview. He said that E.U. leaders were already consulting with each other about the next steps to take. The Baltic nation of Lithuania has 3 million citizens at home and 200,000 in Britain, a measure of what is at stake not just for Britain but for the European nations it is leaving behind.

For an Eastern Europe that is staring across its borders at mounting numbers of Russian troops, the British decision will also have security implications, empowering the Kremlin and weakening European resolve against Russian actions in Ukraine.

“Frankly speaking, of course the Kremlin will celebrate,” Linkevicius said. “It’s a big day. Any step weakening the unity of the European Union, unfortunately, this could be considered a victory.”

In Russia, pro-Kremlin politicians mocked Europe for what they said was going against the Euroskeptic will of their populations.

“After the referendums in the Netherlands and Britain, the elites leading the countries of the E.U. will be against holding them: the opinion of the people is dangerous for their political goals,” the head of the foreign affairs committee of Russia’s lower house of parliament, Alexey Pushkov, wrote on Twitter. (Source: The Washington Post)