Europe wants a quickie divorce from Britain

EU want Britain to trigger Article 50 as soon as possible.

The Foreign Ministers from the EU's founding six Jean Asselborn from Luxemburg, Paolo Gentiloni from Italy, Jean-Marc Ayrault from France, Frank-Walter Steinmeier from Germany, Didier Reynders from Belgium and Bert Koenders from the Netherlands, after a meeting on the so-called Brexit in Berlin, Germany,  June 25, 2016. Markus Schreiber/ Associated Press
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BERLIN // It was never the easiest of marriages but it worked for a while. Now that Britain wants to leave, the six founding members of the European Union are eager to start divorce proceedings.

After a hastily-arranged crisis meeting on Saturday in the German capital, the foreign ministers of France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg urged Britain to invoke Article 50 of the European Union treaty and kick-start the process for leaving the union.

“We say here together, this process should get underway as soon as possible so that we are not left in limbo but rather can concentrate on the future of Europe,” said Germany’s Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who hosted the meeting.

French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault said “There is a certain urgency ... so that we don’t have a period of uncertainty, with financial consequences, political consequences.” while Luxembourg’s foreign minister Jean Asselborn added, enigmatically, “I hope that we don’t get into a cat-and-mouse game here.”

Outgoing UK prime minister David Cameron said there was no need to start negotiations for withdrawal until his successor is in place, which will not be until October. But the president of the European commission, Jean-Claude Juncker said such a delay “doesn’t make sense” adding, “I would like to get started immediately.”

Article 50 is the means by which a member state informs the others that it wants to leave the EU. It has never been used so the process is untested. There is a deadline of two years to work out a withdrawal agreements and how good that agreement turns out to be will still depend very much on the other 27 member states.

Although the UK will continue to participate in general EU business, it will be kept out of discussions between the other member states on Britain’s departure. Britain will do its negotiating with the European Commission, which will have been briefed by the European parliament and the European Council. Britain does not have to accept the terms offered by the EU but any conditions Britain wants might have to be ratified by not only the European parliament but by each of the national parliaments of the 27 member states.

As soon as the result of the UK referendum was announced, France’s president Francois Hollande admitted the EU was in need of reform, saying “To move forward, Europe cannot act as before.” But on Saturday his economy minister Emmanuel Macron went further, calling for a root-and-branch reinvention that should then be put to a Europe-wide referendum.

“We would first build this new project with European peoples and then submit this new road map, this new project, to a referendum,” he said before a debate on the fallout from the British referendum. Mr Macron, a former investment banker and one of the more popular members of Mr Hollande’s socialist government, said voters should be consulted about proposed reforms through a series of debates that he called “democratic conventions”. These would provide the basis for a Europe-wide ballot.

“We need collectively to avoid falling into a trap — the trap that says we now need referendums everywhere and on everything, but we need to respond to these worries for our people because some of these fears exit in our own countries,” he said. “We need to lay new foundations for Europe, but it won’t be done in 15 days. There won’t be a European treaty proposed next week. Taking time doesn’t mean a lack of ambition.”

He was not advocating separate referendums in all 27 member states, he added. “We’ve never had the courage to organise a true European referendum in its real sense. This next project must give it that strength.

In Britain, an online petition calling for a second referendum on British membership of the EU had collected 1.5 million signatures by Saturday, arguing for the UK government to implement a rule that a vote either way of less than 60 per cent based on a voter turnout of less than 75 per cent was grounds for another referendum.

The “leave” campaign won 51.9 per cent of the vote with a turnout of 72.2 per cent and any petition with more than 100,000 signatures is eligible for debate in parliament, although the decision on whether to hold one rests with parliament’s Petitions Committee. The last debate triggered by public petition was in January after 587,000 people signed a petition calling for US presidential candidate Donald Trump to be banned from the UK because of his anti-Muslim remarks. It failed — Mr Trump arrived in Scotland on Friday, and immediately waded in on the referendum outcome, saying, “It’s historic — I love to see people take their country back.”

Alas, his snap analysis was wrong. Scottish voters were 62.2 per cent in favour of staying in the EU, meaning Scots are now bound by a referendum result that did not reflect majority opinion in Scotland — a situation that gives fresh impetus to the quest to win independence from the rest of the UK. In 2014, 55 per cent of Scots chose in favour of remaining within the UK, but first minister Nicola Sturgeon wasted no time in announcing that a second referendum on Scottish independence was “very much on the table.”

She had first floated the idea on Friday, saying it was “highly likely” within two years, citing a clause in the Scottish Nationalist Party manifesto referring to “significant and material change in the circumstances”.

After an emergency cabinet meeting on Saturday, Ms Sturgeon said her cabinet had already started work on preparing for a new independence referendum. The first minister said she as also seeking immediate talks with the EU on how to continue Scotland’s relationship with the bloc. Her government is to appoint a panel of advisers in coming weeks and convene a meeting of consuls-general from EU member states.

* Reuters and Bloomberg