EU leaders agreed to give the U.K. time to let the “dust settle” from the country’s historic decision to leave the European Union, but made it clear they would not wait forever for Britain to formally begin its secession.
After hearing from David Cameron in a dinner meeting Tuesday which the prime minister characterized as full of “sadness and regret,” the leaders accepted the decision to leave was irreversible and said they would respect the will of the British people.
“We all recognized that the process of an orderly exit was in everyone’s and especially the U.K.’s interest,” European Council President Donald Tusk said after the leaders’ meeting with Cameron.
Tusk added that the talks were “calm and measured. We did understand that some time is now needed to allow the dust to settle in the U.K.”
But the other 27 EU leaders made it clear to Cameron that they expected the matter to be “specified as soon as possible” — not least because global markets needed reassuring, said Tusk.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel drew the conclusion that there was no going back on the U.K.’s decision to leave the bloc.
“I see no possibility to reverse this. We would do well to accept this reality,” Merkel told reporters. “This is not a time for wishful thinking, but to see things as they are.”
Cameron, who had campaigned to stay in the bloc, told EU leaders he was “sorry” about the result of the referendum, according to one EU official, adding that people voted to leave because they felt they had no control over immigration from Europe.
The prime minister himself said they “were very much sad that we’ve decided to leave the union,” and promised that Britain was not turning its back on Europe.
In what he called an atmosphere of “universal respect” for the U.K. electorate’s decision, Cameron said European leaders had understood that “Britain should seek the closest possible relations over trade and security” with the bloc.
But even as they came to grips with the reality of Brexit and agreed to give the U.K. some time to get it underway, the other EU leaders said the bloc’s rules had to be followed and the clock was ticking.
“Rules are rules, democracy is democracy, treaties are treaties,” said French President François Hollande. “It isn’t about punishing the U.K. and even less the British citizens.”
European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker sounded a more exasperated tone as he reiterated his position that there would be no movement on talks about Britain’s future relationship with the EU until the U.K. begins the process of withdrawal, which requires it to invoke Article 50 of the EU’s Lisbon Treaty. Cameron says that decision is up to his successor, who should take office by October.
“I understand that David Cameron wants to have some time in which he wants to meditate,” Juncker said, calling this natural since the prime minister had campaigned for Britain to remain in the EU. “What I don’t understand is that those who wanted to leave are totally unable to tell us what they want… I thought that if you want to leave, you have a plan.”
Juncker also sought to lay the blame for the situation at the feet of the British government, rather than what the Brexiteers call the “European superstate.”
“If you are telling people for years that something is wrong with the union, you cannot be taken by surprise if voters believe you,” Juncker said.
Juncker said Cameron — who opposed his appointment to the Commission presidency in 2014 — was “not the enemy.”
The Brexit issue usurped most of the time originally scheduled for leaders to deal with other crises facing the EU — on migration, security and the economy.
Talks on such issues usually fill up a two-day summit on their own. This time they were compressed into a three-hour, pre-dinner discussion before getting on to Brexit business. The leaders issued a joint statement after that initial session, saying it was “important to continue working together” on migration and making the traditional promises on creating job growth.
But the real focus was on the relationship with Britain and what Tusk warned would be a long process. Broader questions about how the EU can move on from this political earthquake — and find what the Polish politician called “a new impulse for Europe” — will be aired on Wednesday morning by the 27 remaining members, at a meeting to which Cameron was not invited.
Matthew Karnitschnig, Maïa de la Baume and Kaley Johnson contributed to this article.
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