The warnings issued by E.U. leaders before Britain’s referendum were widely replaced by expressions of solidarity after news broke of the Leave vote this morning. Concerns over trade and freedom of movement turned into calls for calm and acknowledgements that the E.U.’s cumbersome mechanisms must be reformed
“What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” Donald Tusk, the president of the European Council, said in his official statement.
His words set the tone for statements by foreign ministers and leaders of other members of the E.U.
Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte said he was “disappointed but not angry” and that he would strive to ensure that the impact of the Brexit on his country was minimized. He added that this was a good time to consider reforms to the E.U, as many other leaders did.
Italy’s foreign minister Paolo Gentiloni called the British decision a “wake up call. It’s a very difficult moment,” he said.
“ We are prepared also for this negative scenario. The EU is not only a fair-weather project.”
French foreign minister, Jean-Marc Ayrault, expressed displeasure too, saying he felt “sad” for the UK. “But Europe continues and must react and regain the confidence of the people. This is urgent,” he stated. His words were echoed by Harlem Desir, France’s minister of state for European affairs.
French president Francois Hollande called a special early morning meeting of ministers in Paris to discuss the Brexit vote. After the meeting Hollande gave a brief statement, acknowledging the “difficult challenge” Europe faced. He said the British exit should be implemented as quickly as possible and the E.U. should “do everything possible to overcome the economic and financial risks caused by Brexit.”
While a number of emergency meetings have been called in European capitals, the message from the top was stay calm. There is also likely to be tough talk of “no special treatment for Britain” over the next few days.
Mr. Tusk said: “It is a historic moment but not a moment for hysterical reactions. I want to reassure everyone that we are prepared for this negative scenario. As you know the E.U. is not only a fair-weather project.”
Spain’s acting prime minister Mariano Rajoy called for “calm and quiet” as well as an orderly and negotiated exit for Britain from the bloc. Mr. Rajoy also said that until that time, it will be business as usual and all the current regulations and rules regarding Spain and the UK still apply. The Spanish are voting in a general election on Sunday and if Mr. Rajoy reacts well to the Brexit problem, he may well benefit, being seen as a safe pair of hands in a tumultuous time.
But there are already signs to indicate just how complex Britain’s retreat from the E.U. will be, even though the process is clearly outlined in the E.U.’s founding documents.
Spain lost no time in saying that it would seek a new relationship with the peninsula of Gibraltar. The peninsula, on the southern coast of Spain, is classified as a British Overseas Territory, but its ownership has long been disputed. Most of those living there voted to remain in the union and Spain hopes for bilateral talks that could eventually result in Spanish control of Gibraltar, Spain’s foreign minister, José Manuel García-Margallo, said.
Meanwhile, Xavier Bertrand, the president of the coastal region of Calais in France, began advocating for a renegotiation of the country’s agreement with the British over international borders in Calais. Currently, French security staff detain migrants who want to cross to the UK on their side of the Channel. But this agreement is not actually part of Britain’s E.U. membership agreement.
Europe’s far-right parties also seized the chance to push their own anti-E.U. agendas. Marine Le Pen, leader of France’s National Front, repeated calls for a French referendum and “Frexit.” Similar desires were expressed by Matteo Salvini, head of Italy’s Northern League, and Geert Wilders, the leader of the Dutch Freedom Party.
Politicians in eastern Europe took a slightly more conciliatory tone, emphasizing the need for E.U. reform – possibly because many have their own nationalist movements to appease. They will now also have to negotiate some kind of agreement on the large number of their citizens currently living and working in Britain.
“The biggest thing to learn from the UK’s decision is that Brussels needs to listen to people’s voices,” Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban said in a TV interview. Mr. Orban, who is anti-immigration, emphasised the fact that immigration had been an issue for British voters. The European Union must engage more closely with its citizens, Poland’s foreign minister Witold Waszczykowski and the Czech prime minister Bohuslav Sobotka both argued.
Cathrin Schaer is an editor at Handelsblatt Global Edition.