British voters today (23 June) chose to leave the European Union, sparking fears over the future of the EU, the UK, and the economy, and forcing the resignation of Prime Minister David Cameron.
Cameron said the legal process for Brexit would not begin until October at the earliest but was immediately pressured by EU bosses to speed up the divorce.
European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, European Parliament President Martin Schulz, European Council President Donald Tusk, and Dutch PM Mark Rutte called on the UK to invoke Article 50 of the EU Treaty, the legal process to take Britain out, “as soon as possible”.
“There will be no renegotiation, there will be no renegotiation,” Juncker told reporters in Brussels.
Tusk, who had warned Brexit would spell “the end of Western civilisation”, said, “What does not kill us, makes us stronger.”
All three EU bosses insisted that Brexit would not be the “death of the EU”. EU national leaders will have a two day summit starting on Tuesday, following an emergency plenary session of the European Parliament, to decide the next steps.
Angela Merkel is set to meet on Monday (27 June) with French President Francois Hollande, Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi and European Council President Donald Tusk in Berlin to discuss their reaction to the UK referendum.
Merkel said during a press conference in Berlin, “There’s no way around it – today marks a break for Europe and a break for the unity process.”
François Hollande said the Brexit vote presented a “grave test for Europe”. “Today history is knocking at our door. I will do all I can to make sure this is a profound change rather than a collapse,” he added.
In London, Cameron said, “The British people have made a very clear decision to take a different path and as such, I think the country requires fresh leadership to take it in this direction.”
He wants to stay in charge until October, with his successor activating Article 50. EU chiefs fear that waiting till then will only prolong the uncertainty that hit the pound and the euro.
The value of the pound dropped by more than 6% against the euro, at one point falling to a 31-year low on currency markets. Pound to dollar exchange rate fell to its lowest level for more than 30 years.
Boris Johnson, the bookmaker’s favourite to succeed Cameron, hailed Brexit as “a glorious opportunity.”
Cameron, his legacy in tatters, fell on his sword at 8am after the results were announced. They showed 51.9% of voters demanding Britain, an EU member state since 1973, quit the bloc.
48.1% voted for Remain, with 75% of 18-24-year-olds backing continued membership. There was a turnout of 72.16%.
Cameron’s reform deal with the EU, which would have put a brake on welfare for migrants, was nullified by the vote.
Sources exclusively told EURACTIV that Conservative party leaders plan to call a general election in November. That is necessary to give the new “Brexit government” a mandate, they said.
Meanwhile opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn, who supported Remain, faced a motion of no confidence in his leadership.
The result has dealt not just a shattering blow to the European Union – which will now see its first ever member state abandon it – but also to the United Kingdom.
Scottish and Irish nationalist leaders demanded referendums on the Scotland and Northern Ireland’s membership of the UK.
Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said a second referendum on whether Scotland will stay in the UK “highly likely”. 55% of Scots voted to stay part of the UK in a 2014 referendum. But a wide majority of 62% cast their votes to stay in the EU yesterday.
Cameron’s resignation is a spectacular fall from grace for the man, who delivered the first Conservative majority in a British general election since 1992, in only May last year. He had promised the in/out referendum on EU membership if elected.
He took credit for putting to bed the idea of Scottish independence “for a generation” after Scots voted to stay in the UK in 2014.
But his attempt to repeat the trick and bandage deep division in the Tory party with the EU vote, has jeopardised that achievement.
Yesterday evening, it appeared that Remain would carry the day. One British Commission official told EURACTIV.com, “Most of us went to bed when Remain was leading. What the hell went wrong?
“People are really upset. Some tears were shed, some people were crying. It has really hit people hard,” the official said. Brits were worried about their jobs, the civil servant added.
Jonathan Faull, the British civil servant in charge of the executive’s Brexit strategy, said only “size matters”, when doorsteeped by a EURACTIV journalist.
But the news was greeted with joy by Eurosceptics, led by UKIP’s Nigel Farage. He said 23 June should become a national holiday, calling it “independence day”.
He said that Brexit was achieved “without a shot being fired” – comments criticised because of the brutal murder of MP Jo Cox, who was gunned down during a campaign dominated by fears over immigration.
Front National President Marine Le Pen called for a ‘Frexit’ referendum in France. Le Pen celebrated the vote as a “victory for freedom” and changed her Twitter picture to a Union Jack.
Speaking from Brussels, Alternative für Deutschland deputy chair Beatrix von Storch gloated over Brexit and called for a German referendum on its EU membership.
“I think it’s time for Juncker and Schulz to step down because their project has failed,” von Storch said.