BERLIN // European leaders were reeling after Britain’s shock vote to leave plunged the EU into deep uncertainty, not least over how to negotiate the unprecedented departure of a member state.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel warned EU member states against drawing hasty conclusions about Britain’s decision to quit, as that risked further splitting Europe. French president Francois Hollande said the vote was a “grave test for Europe” and Italy’s prime minister, Matteo Renzi, described the bloc as like a house in need of renovation.
Mrs Merkel will host talks with Mr Hollande, Mr Renzi and European Council president Donald Tusk in Berlin on Monday.
“We take note of the British people’s decision with regret, Mrs Merkel said. “There is no doubt that this is a blow to Europe and to the European unification process.
But “what the consequences of this would be ... would depend on whether we — the other 27 member states of the EU — prove to be willing and able to not draw quick and simple conclusions from the referendum in Great Britain, which would only further divide Europe,” said Mrs Merkel.
“The British vote poses a grave test for Europe, which must show solidity and strength in its response to the economic and financial risks,” Hollande said after meeting with his cabinet.
Expressing his chagrin over the vote, he said: “It always takes less time to undo than to do, to destroy than to build. The choice is theirs, and we must respect it.”
The Italian premier added his voice to calls for change after Britain’s vote to leave.
Admitting it was “not an easy day” Mr Renzi said: “Europe is our house, the house of our children and our grandchildren. We know that the house needs to be renovated, perhaps freshened up, but that it will still be our house tomorrow.”
Earlier, top EU officials tried to put on a brave face as the European enterprise — already wracked by economic woes, Greece’s shaky future in the euro and Europe’s inability to manage the refugee emergency — came face to face with yet another existential challenge.
As the British pound lost value and with markets jittery, EU leaders underlined that the UK must negotiate its exit quickly and warned that it would remain a member, with all the obligations that entails, until the talks are over. That could mean more than two years longer.
The heads of the EU’s main institutions said in a statement that they want Britain to act on the vote “as soon as possible, however painful that process may be. Any delay would unnecessarily prolong uncertainty.”
The statement was signed by Mr Tusk, European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker, European Parliament president Martin Schulz and Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte, whose country currently holds the EU’s rotating presidency.
They added that under the bloc’s treaties “EU law continues to apply to the full to and in the United Kingdom until it is no longer a member.”
Mr Tusk told said that Britain’s 27 partners were “determined to keep our unity.” But, he said, “there’s no way of predicting all the political consequences of this event.”
He said EU leaders will meet next week on the sidelines of a summit in Brussels “to start a wider reflection on the future of our Union.”
While he admitted that the last year has been one of the toughest in EU history, Mr Tusk said: “What doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger.”
Brexit latest: Business world reaction