EU leaders are ready to ‘start the divorce’ with UK

Merkel says London should not think it can ‘cherry-pick’ its way back to single market

British Prime Minister David Cameron arrives ahead of a European Council Meeting at the Council of the European Union on Tuesday in Brussels, Belgium. Photograph: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

British Prime Minister David Cameron arrives ahead of a European Council Meeting at the Council of the European Union on Tuesday in Brussels, Belgium. Photograph: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images


Despite a sunny 20 degrees in Brussels, there was a chill in the air when David Cameron met his EU colleagues for their first time since Britain voted last Thursday to leave the bloc.

At this emergency meeting many EU leaders hoped to begin talks on the divorce terms with Britain – to minimise collateral damage and dampen demands for similar separation referendums in their respective countries.

They were anxious, too, to send a message of unity, but disagreed on how. Chancellor Angela Merkel spoke for many in warning that there could be no talks – formal or informal – about Britain’s future relationship with the EU until London triggered the exit process through Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty.

The EU had survived many crises in the last decades, Dr Merkel said, “but nothing like this”. She warned London not to think it could “cherry-pick” its way back into the single market from outside.

Full access for non-EU members to the world’s largest trading bloc, she said, hinged on a country accepting Europe’s four basic freedoms of movement: for goods, services, people and capital.

“That applies to Great Britain as much as it does to anyone else,” she said. “Someone who wants to leave cannot expect that the obligations lapse while the privileges remain.”

French president François Hollande, facing a rising far-right, anti-EU opposition at home, was even more outspoken in urging a British departure “as quickly as possible”. The EU-27 had “no time to lose”, he said, “Europe doesn’t stop... history continues.”

French prime minister Manuel Valls warned London: “Either leave or stay. Luxembourg’s prime minister Xavier Bettel’s succinct request, via Facebook: “Marriage or divorce, nothing in between.”

Chairing the two-day emergency meeting, European Council president Donald Tusk called on EU leaders to be “patient” with the UK. “Europe is ready to start the divorce process, even today, without any enthusiasm, as you can imagine,” he said. “This is not the scenario we were dreaming about.”

With financial markets still roiling from the British vote, Mr Tusk insisted Europe had a “precise plan” – but that this was dependent on official notification from Britain that it wishes to leave.

Leading the calm camp were Ireland, Denmark and the Netherlands, with Dutch leader Mark Rutte urging his colleagues to “give [Britain] some space”.

Considering Britain had “collapsed politically, monetarily, constitutionally and economically” in the last week, Mr Rutte said it was “not reasonable” to demand London file immediately for its EU divorce.

Behind closed doors, EU leaders turned up the heat on the British leader, with some accusing him of putting party politics and his own profile above the wider interests of Britain – and Europe.

While many leaders reserved their chief anger for Britain, others zeroed in on European leaders, EU institutions and the prevailing neoliberal economic ideology.

“Europe has reached a predictable crisis because of the democratic deficit, because of the absence of social cohesion and solidarity,” said Greek prime minister Alexis Tsipras. He called for the EU to “to replace austerity with growth, division with convergence, unemployment with decent jobs and endless negotiations behind closed doors with transparency and democracy”.

While Mr Cameron hoped to claw back some goodwill over a working dinner in Brussels on Tuesday night, EU leaders continue their discussions on Wednesday without him. A second informal EU meeting without Britain has been called for September.

Looking on from Washington, US president Barack Obama urged leaders meeting in Brussels to calm down. “There’s been a little bit of hysteria post-Brexit vote, as if somehow Nato’s gone, the transatlantic alliance is dissolving, and every country is rushing off to its own corner,” said Mr Obama to NPR public radio. “That’s not what’s happening.”

“What’s happening is that you had a European project that was probably moving faster and without as much consensus as it should have.”

With this Brussels gathering unlikely and unable to go into the complex issues ahead in any depth, leaders were resigned to their emergency meeting being a venting and idea-sorting exercise.

Indicative of the complex task the EU faces in the months and years ahead, Dr Merkel made a rare admission of helplessness. “Every proposal,” she said, “that can help guide an EU of 27 members as a whole out of this crisis is welcome.”