Friday, June 24, 2016

EU Parliament Leader: We Want Britain Out As Soon As Possible
President Martin Schulz says speeding up of UK exit being considered after ‘continent taken hostage because of Tory party fight’

Jennifer Rankin and Jon Henley in Brussels, Philip Oltermann in Berlin and Helena Smith in Athens
Friday 24 June 2016 10.55 EDT

A senior EU leader has confirmed the bloc wants Britain out as soon as possible, warning that David Cameron’s decision to delay the start of Brexit negotiations until his successor is in place may not be fast enough.

Martin Schulz, the president of the European parliament, told the Guardian that EU lawyers were studying whether it was possible to speed up the triggering of article 50 – the untested procedure for leaving the European Union.

“Uncertainty is the opposite of what we need,” Schulz said, adding that it was difficult to accept that “a whole continent is taken hostage because of an internal fight in the Tory party”.

“I doubt it is only in the hands of the government of the United Kingdom,” he said. “We have to take note of this unilateral declaration that they want to wait until October, but that must not be the last word.”

Cameron said in his resignation speech on Friday morning it would be up to his successor – expected to be appointed before the Conservative party conference in October – to trigger article 50. Once that is done, the clock starts running on two years of negotiations.

Boris Johnson, the former mayor of London and a leading Leave campaigner, has also said there should be “no haste” in Britain preparing to leave the union.

Schulz’s comments followed an earlier joint statement with the presidents of the European council and commission, Donald Tusk and Jean-Claude Juncker, as well as Mark Rutte, the prime minister of the Netherlands, which holds the EU’s rotating presidency, warning that the EU expected Britain to act “as soon as possible, however painful the process may be” and that there could be “no renegotiation”.

The four said after emergency talks in Brussels that they regretted, but respected Britain’s decision. “This is an unprecedented situation, but we are united in our response,” they said.

While 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, effectively the UK’s formal letter of resignation.

The special settlement negotiated by Cameron earlier this year was void and could not be renegotiated, they said.

In Berlin, the 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.

Speaking in Paris, the French president, François Hollande, said he “profoundly regrets” the Brexit vote but that the EU now had to make changes. In a brief televised statement, 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, adding that 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.”

Manfred Weber, the chairman of the European People’s party group of centre-right parties in the European parliament, stressed that Britain had crossed a line and there was no going back.

The vote “causes major damage to both sides”, Weber said. “Exit negotiations should be concluded within two years at max. There cannot be any special treatment. Leave means leave.”

Tusk said earlier that 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.”

Germany’s foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, called the result “truly sobering … It looks like a sad day for Europe and the United Kingdom.”

Sigmar Gabriel, the head of Germany’s Social Democrats, Merkel’s coalition partners, said the British vote was a “shrill wake-up call” for European politicians. “Whoever fails to heed it or takes refuge in the usual rituals, will drive Europe against the wall,” Gabriel said.

The 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.

The Polish foreign minister, Witold Waszczykowski, said in a statement the result showed “disillusionment with European integration, and declining trust in the EU”. He sought to reassure at least 850,000 Poles living in Britain that “during talks (...) we will aim to guarantee the rights citizens have acquired”.

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, the 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 told the Guardian. “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.

Brussels will look to Germany and France to show the world that Europe is still in business. Italy is likely to also play a role in crisis talks, although Spanish elections on Sunday rule out much input from Madrid.

The UK has to negotiate two exit 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 3 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, told the Guardian 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”.

He said: “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.”

Jean-Claude Piris, a former head of the EU council legal service, said claims that Britain would get unfettered access to the single market, without free movement of people, were the equivalent of believing in Father Christmas. He said the British “cannot get as good a deal as they have now, it is impossible”.

Some Brussels insiders fear France and Germany may soften their approach after the vote. Others think countries, especially France, will push for a harsh settlement to hammer home the price of leaving.

One likely outcome of negotiations is that banks and financial firms in the City of London will be stripped of their lucrative EU “passports” that allow them to sell services to the rest of the EU.

However, 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.

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