Brexit: Sombre mood in Brussels as reality starts to sink in

The mood in Brussels was sombre yesterday after the UK’s shock decision to quit the EU. The heads of the bloc’s three institutions made a show of unity and begged for calm as they geared up for what is likely to be a drawn-out divorce settlement.

“It is a historic moment but for sure not a moment for hysterical reactions”, said European Council president Donald Tusk, who chairs the summits of EU leaders and will steer the bloc’s exit talks with the UK.

“I always remember what my father used to tell me: What doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger.”

The surprise result, which blindsided those in Brussels and beyond, will have major repercussions for the EU, according to Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Löfven.

Austrian chancellor Christian Kern said “Europe will lose status and significance in the world” as a result of the vote, which French President Francois Hollande called “a tough test for Europe”.

The decision will shift the balance of power in Europe, ceding political ground to France and Germany, and robbing northern European countries such as Sweden, Denmark, Finland, Ireland, and the Netherlands of an important ally at the EU negotiating table.

“This is a major problem. We’ve lost an enormous economy, one of the only five triple A countries, and we’ve lost a net contributor to the EU budget,” said Fine Gael MEP Brian Hayes.

Mr Hollande will meet German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin on Monday to discuss the fallout from the British referendum ahead of an EU summit in Brussels on Tuesday and Wednesday.

EU parliamentarians, who will have to approve a future UK exit deal, will also meet Tuesday. A British exit, or Brexit, will have far-reaching consequences for Ireland, given the €1.2bn worth of trade exchanged with Britain each week, and border and policing issues in Northern Ireland.

Global financial markets took a hammering yesterday, and the International Monetary Fund acknowledged the risks for Ireland were “tilted to the downside”. “The vote in the UK to leave the EU, if accompanied by a marked slowdown in the UK and in the rest of Europe and a surge in financial market volatility, would have a significant adverse effect on Ireland in light of the strong trade and financial linkages with the British economy,” the IMF said in a statement.

The fate of the economy will depend on whether Taoiseach Enda Kenny can convince EU negotiators to treat Ireland as a special case in any post-Brexit deal.

Minister of State for Europe Dara Murphy, who was at an EU ministers’ meeting in Luxembourg yesterday, said his EU counterparts recognised Ireland’s special position.

“After the UK we would be the most affected country,” he told the Irish Examiner.

“There’s a strong sense and a strong acceptance that Ireland has individual issues that need to be addressed.” However, it is still unclear when that deal would be done. The EU is now playing a waiting game, as the UK has refused to make an official application to leave the bloc, pending a Tory leadership battle and a UK parliamentary vote on the referendum result.

Until the UK officially applies to leave, it remains an EU member, subject to the same obligations it has accrued since it joined the then-EEC in 1973 alongside Ireland and Denmark.

Under EU law, It can take up to two years or more to conclude an exit treaty, and only then will the UK be able to start extricating itself from EU laws and renegotiate access to the bloc’s single market, which experts say could take up to a decade.

EU officials tried to prod British premier David Cameron into action yesterday, saying they “expect the United Kingdom government to give effect to this decision of the British people as soon as possible, however painful that process may be”.

The Brexit vote puts an end to three-and-a-half years of institutional navel-gazing, after a speech by Mr Cameron at a Bloomberg event in which he first announced his intention to hold an in/ out referendum on Britain’s EU membership.

However, the result has prompted an outpouring of grief among UK natives living in Brussels, with some British EU officials in tears and fearful for their futures.

“This is not what anyone envisaged or wanted, nobody saw it coming,” said Irish MEP Marian Harkin.

“It is a shocking thing to have happened, from the UK’s perspective, from our perspective and for the EU globally.”

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