EU leaders call for practical reforms after Brexit shock

Tusk: There will be ‘no single market á la carte’ for Britain

An Taoiseach Enda Kenny confirms that he is looking to make a case for 'Ireland's national interest' at the post-Brexit EU summit. Video: EU Council

German chancellor Angela Merkel has warned the EU of 27 member states, minus Britain, not to tie itself up in technocratic talk in the coming months but concentrate on delivering policy to change citizens' lives for the better.

After their first Brussels meeting on Wednesday morning without Britain, EU leaders agreed that the bloc - shaken by last week's Brexit vote - needed to agree on practical and pragmatic reforms after a period of "political reflection" ahead of their next meeting September.

"Often citizens don't know why we are doing something and what goal it has," said Dr Merkel after an informal meeting on Wednesday that was not attended by British prime minister David Cameron. "We have to convince people through what we do . . . It is not about more or less Europe but that better results are achieved."

Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the European Commission, right, speaks during a news conference with Donald Tusk, president of the European Union, after a meeting of EU leaders in Brussels, Belgium. Photograph: Jasper Juinen/Bloomberg

To cut youth unemployment in Europe, for instance, the German leader said it might be helpful to simultaneously scrap some EU rules while deepening cross-border co-operation.

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Á la carte

Meanwhile, European Council president Donald Tusk said there would be “no single market á la carte” for Britain following the first meeting between Britain’s EU partners in the wake of the referendum result.

Speaking to journalists in Brussels, the head of the council appeared to rule out granting Britain concessions on free movement.

His comments were echoed by European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker: “Those wanting access to our single market must implement the four freedoms without exceptions and without nuances,” he said.

Mr Tusk said that the discussion at the meeting – the first without Britain in the room – had been “calm and serious.”

“Leaders are absolutely determined to remain united and to work together as 27,” he said, confirming plans for a summit in Bratislava on September 16th to discuss the fallout from the British referendum result.

Mr Tusk rejected suggestions that the EU was to blame for the British referendum result. He said the British settlement agreed by EU leaders February was “more than maximum that was possible in our treaties and acceptable to our treaties.”

Pragmatism

Dr Merkel’s call for greater pragmatism was shared by Belgian prime minister Charles Michel. He said leaders must counter perceptions that the EU is a “technocracy” by presenting measures with “real added value” for citizens.

Western European calls for pro-active pragmatism contrasted with post-referendum calls from central European capitals, demanding root canal work on EU treaties to rebalance power between Brussels and capitals.

Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the influential head of Poland’s ruling Law and Justice party, called for a new Europe of nation states creating a confederation and warned that “more integration” under current EU rules meant “more power for Berlin”.

Though those divisions may open up again in the coming weeks, EU officials insisted there had been “no voices” for treaty change around the meeting table on Wednesday.

Dr Merkel insisted her resistance to treaty change was not motivated by fear of another Brexit-style popular revolt – but a determination to present quick reforms. The current Lisbon Treaty was less than a decade old, she said, and offered “considerable flexibility”.

“When the Russians put a man in space, the US said ‘we’ll send someone to the moon’,” she said.

EU leaders -minus Britain – will meet again informally in September in Bratislava to discuss measures to boost economic growth, tackle terrorism together and reduce youth unemployment.

In a joint statement, the 27 EU leaders said they “deeply regret” the result of the vote and “hope to have the UK as a close partner . . . We look forward to the UK stating its intentions in this respect.”

Dissatisfaction

Despite the EU’s achievements, leaders said they were conscious that “many people express dissatisfaction with the current state of affairs, be it at the European or national level”.

“Europeans expect us to do better when it comes to providing security, jobs and growth, as well as hope for a better future,” they added. “We need to deliver on this, in a way that unites us, not least in the interest of the young.”

As the EU pressures Britain to officially file for divorce from the bloc in the weeks ahead, French president Francois Hollande said Europe must show “solidity” in the debate over further reform.

In Britain’s absence, several EU leaders expressed support for the British situation and called for measures to keep Britain included in European affairs.

Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte said: “It’s not only the British voters who have doubts about European co-operation. There is scepticism in many other EU countries.”

Italian premier Matteo Renzi proposed ad hoc citizenship measures to allow British students continue to study in EU universities. He also warned against the bloc “pretending that nothing had happened”.

“There is a significant part of public opinion and Europe’s ruling political class that has understood that we have to strongly relaunch the Europe that we believe in,” said Mr Renzi, “the one that wants to talk about values, that wants to talk about more than just procedures and rules.”

As the EU waits for London to come back with its exit timetable, other bloc leaders said they were not interested in hanging around in mourning at Britain’s departure.

“Today is about us,” said Dalia Grybauskaite, president of Lithuania. “Of course we will move on. Who will stop us?”

But with a major EU member no longer at the table, the German chancellor conceded it was an odd moment in EU history.

“We think we can master this situation as 27,” she said, “but we have no illusions about how this is a qualitatively different task than with 28.”

Suzanne Lynch

Suzanne Lynch

Suzanne Lynch, a former Irish Times journalist, was Washington correspondent and, before that, Europe correspondent

Derek Scally

Derek Scally

Derek Scally is an Irish Times journalist based in Berlin