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Britain’s decision to become the first member state to leave the 28-member European Union has plunged the bloc into uncharted waters, sparking widespread concern and triggering losses of over $2 trillion on global stock markets.
European leaders will embark on a flurry of diplomatic activity this week to plan the way forward, with some pushing for a quick divorce amid fears Britain’s vote to leave will create a domino effect in eurosceptic member states.
French President François Hollande will hold talks with EU President Donald Tusk in Paris on Monday morning, before heading to Berlin for a meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi.
Leaders will then begin a crunch two-day summit in Brussels on Tuesday, when British Prime Minister David Cameron is expected to face huge pressure to immediately trigger the two-year process to exit the EU.
On Sunday, a source close to the French presidency said Hollande and Merkel were in “full agreement on how to handle the situation” created by Britain’s vote to quit the EU.
Both heads of state “want the greatest clarity to avoid any uncertainty” and “stressed the need for European initiatives and the need to act quickly on concrete priorities”, the source told AFP.
French politicians from across the political spectrum have adopted a tough line since the British referendum, saying a quick divorce is necessary. Some are describing Brexit as an opportunity for France to reassert its leadership in the EU.
“There can be no cat and mouse game,” French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault said over the weekend.
Hollande declared there was no going back on “Brexit”, adding: “What was once unthinkable has become irreversible.”
The French president said Paris and Berlin must use their strong friendship to seize the initiative, warning that “separated, we run the risk of divisions, dissension and quarrels”.
‘No need for threats’
But despite the talk of unity and “full agreement”, divisions have emerged across the Rhine over how to treat Britain in the immediate aftermath of the vote.
At a meeting of Merkel’s conservatives on Sunday, she and her aides made clear that they were ready to give Britain the time it needs to sort through its political mess before starting talks on the terms of a Brexit.
Some officials in Berlin may even be hoping that the referendum could be reversed. Either way, their priority is to prevent an acrimonious rupture with London.
“Of course the EU has the means to pressure Britain but we shouldn’t focus on that,” one senior German official told Reuters. “They need the time to realise what they’ve done. There is no need for threats or pressure at the moment.”
Kerry flies in
US officials have also called for caution. Secretary of State John Kerry, who is due in London on Monday after a stop-off in Brussels, expressed regret at Britain’s decision to become the first EU nation to leave the bloc — and vowed Washington would maintain close ties with the 28-country alliance.
“Brexit and the changes that are now being thought through have to be thought through in the context of the interests and values that bind us together with the EU,” he said.
Some EU diplomats have warned that Britain “may never” trigger the formal divorce process — Article 50 of the 2007 Lisbon Treaty, which will set the clock ticking on a two-year period for Britain to negotiate its divorce.
Britain’s Cameron has said he will step down by October, allowing his successor to conduct the talks and, presumably, trigger Article 50.
His Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond, who campaigned for Brexit, indicated the UK would resist pressure for a swift start to negotiations, insisting that “nothing is going to happen at the moment”.