BERLIN: European powers demanded a quick divorce on Saturday as Britain’s seismic vote to abandon the European Union sparked bitter break-up rows at home and abroad.
Britons had cast aside warnings of isolation and economic disaster to vote 52-48% in favour of quitting the EU in the June 23 referendum.
The historic vote, fought on the battlefronts of the economy and immigration, toppled Prime Minister David Cameron, pounded sterling and led Moody’s to downgrade Britain’s credit rating outlook to ‘negative’.
It exposed deep divisions in Britain too, where more than 1.7 million people called for a new vote, young people railed against the anti-EU older generation and Scotland revived independence calls.
Spurned European powers, meanwhile, showed exasperation at Cameron’s decision to stay on until as late as October before letting a successor take the helm and launch EU exit negotiations.
The six original EU members – Germany, France, Italy, the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg – held an emergency meeting in Berlin to grapple with the first defection of the bloc’s 60-year history.
“We join together in saying that this process must begin as soon as possible so we don’t end up in an extended limbo period,” said Germany’s Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier. He insisted London still had a ‘responsibility’ toward the EU.
“We must now be allowed to focus on the future of Europe and that means that after the decision taken in Britain, the process by which we negotiate Britain’s exit must begin.”
France’s Jean-Marc Ayrault went further, directly urging Cameron – who has said he would resign by October – to make way fast for a new British prime minister to manage the transition out of the union. “A new prime minister must be designated, that will take a few days but there is certain urgency,” Ayrault told AFP.
As the EU grappled with the first defection in its six-decade history, European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker warned London against foot-dragging now that it had made its fateful choice.
He admitted that the EU had hoped Britain would stay but that now it was key to make the separation process as speedy and painless as possible. “It is not an amicable divorce but it was also not an intimate love affair,” he said.
European Parliament President Martin Schulz called Cameron’s decision to possibly wait until October to leave ‘scandalous’, saying that he was “taking the whole (European) continent hostage.”
Netherlands’ Foreign Minister Bert Koenders, called for ‘good faith’ talks with London to begin right away: “We have to move on… we need to turn the page.”
Characteristically cautious, Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel said only that Britain’s exit talks should not ‘drag on forever’ and that until they were completed, Britain would remain a full-fledged EU member “with all the rights and responsibilities.”
Steinmeier had opened the meeting with a heartfelt plea for the EU to remain united even in crisis. “I am confident that these countries can also send a message that we won’t let anyone take Europe from us,” he said. The British vote has stoked fears of a domino-effect of exit votes in eurosceptic member states that could imperil the integrity of the bloc.
In an early sign of the Brexit fallout in Brussels, Britain’s European commissioner for financial services, Jonathan Hill, said he would stand down. “I don’t believe it is right that I should carry on as the British commissioner as though nothing had happened,” he said.
At home, more than 1.7 million Britons regretting the referendum result signed up to a rapidly-growing petition on an official government website pleading for a new vote. The unprecedented rush overwhelmed the site, forcing it to be suspended at one point, a spokesman said. It surpassed by 17 times the 100,000 signatures required for a proposal to be discussed in the lower house of parliament.
A committee, which can put forward petitions for debate by lawmakers, will consider the proposal Tuesday.
Scotland stood aghast at the prospect of being dragged out of the EU when more than 60 per cent of its people voted to stay in.
Scotland is seeking ‘immediate discussions’ with its EU partners to try to protect its position in the bloc, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon declared after an emergency meeting of Scotland’s cabinet. “A second independence referendum is clearly an option that requires to be on the table,” she added. The cabinet agreed to start to draw up legislation that could enable such a vote once a decision is taken.
Published in The Express Tribune, June 26th, 2016.