EU leaders toughen line over British ‘divorce’ – Washington Post

European leaders took a tough stance Tuesday against British efforts to leave the European Union, as leading exit campaigners appeared to accept that they may not be able to pick the best parts of E.U. membership while discarding the onerous ones. 

The showdown came as the E.U.’s 28 leaders gathered in Brussels for the first time since the shock British decision to split from the union. E.U. leaders are seeking to keep their bloc from fracturing even more, promising a hard-line stance  against allowing Britain to retain coveted free access to the largest consumer market in the world without also maintaining the very E.U. characteristic that the British referendum seemed to reject: open borders. 

Instead, many European leaders appear to envision  a deal similar to that with Norway – a non-E.U. member that has to submit to most E.U. rules in exchange for free trade with the bloc. Such an arrangement would be a major letdown for British voters who believed that their ballots could halt immigration from elsewhere in Europe. 

London cannot “cherry-pick” from the benefits of the E.U. without accepting its basic strictures, German Chancellor Angela Merkel told her Parliament on Tuesday before she traveled to Brussels for the dinner meeting with British Prime Minister David Cameron and the other E.U. leaders. 

“Those who want free access to the European domestic market will have to accept the basic European freedoms and the other rules and duties which are linked to it,” Merkel said. “This applies to Great Britain just like to everyone else. Free access to the domestic market is granted to those who accept the four basic European freedoms — of people, of goods, of services, of capital.” 

Or, more succinctly: “Marriage or divorce, but nothing in between,” said Luxembourg Prime Minister Xavier Bettel. 

World markets and the pound rebounded Tuesday after tumbling since the  surprise exit vote, suggesting that economic pandemonium may have eased — at least for the moment. Investors may also be betting that less changes in the relationship between Britain and the E.U. than they had initially feared. Wall Street opened higher.

President Obama, who strongly sided with the pro-E.U. side in Britain, acknowledged the messy financial and political fallout from the British exit vote, dubbed Brexit, and the fears of a fracture in European integration. But he predicted no lasting disruptions. 

“There’s been a little bit of hysteria post-Brexit vote, as if somehow NATO’s gone, the transatlantic alliance is dissolving, and every country is rushing off to its own corner,” Obama said in an interview with National Public Radio that aired Tuesday. “That’s not what’s happening.” 

The British departure has set off fears that other nations may follow, challenging the fabric of a union that has been woven together among more than two dozen very different nations. Some European leaders have said that the British exit will need to inspire their own reflections about a European Union that has strayed from its long-held hopes to provide economic prosperity and stability from the Atlantic coast to the Baltic border with Russia. 

On Tuesday, those leaders were due to hear Cameron explain Britain’s path out of the club and his vision of his nation’s future relationship with its ex-partners. Any concrete plans are likely to be left to Cameron’s successor, who will be picked in September, much to the annoyance of E.U. leaders looking for a rapid withdrawal to avoid further chaos. 

As a small measure of the bureaucratic intransigence that British voters rejected, leaders planned to spend three hours on a long agenda of non-Brexit related topics before they settled down to the burning issue that was transfixing the globe. Under discussion were migration, the European economy and competitiveness, as well as plans for a NATO summit next week.

On his way into the meetings, Cameron on Tuesday suggested a vision for a divorce that appeared to preserve the status quo as much as possible, except for formal membership. 

“These countries are our neighbors, our friends, our allies, our partners, and I very much hope we’ll seek the closest possible relationship in terms of trade and cooperation and security,” Cameron said in Brussels on his way into meetings with the other leaders. “That is good for us and that is good for them.” 

Europe’s hard-line stance could come as a shock to British voters, who opted to exit the 28-member bloc on the basis of a “leave” campaign that had argued the country would be able to retain the benefits of E.U. membership from outside the union while ridding itself of the drawbacks. 

Specifically, pro-Brexit politicians had promised that Britain would continue to enjoy an advantaged trading relationship with Europe without having to abide by the continent’s free-movement rules. 

Millions of Europeans have moved to Britain under those rules, and polls showed that controlling immigrant flows was the top concern of voters opting for “out.” 

But since the vote, the pro-Brexit camp has splintered, with some continuing to press for an answer to immigration while others seem to quietly acknowledge that meaningful change is likely out of reach. 

The split reflects the awkward alliance that fueled the “out” campaign: On one side are libertarian free marketers who want out of the E.U. in order to cut Brussels bureaucracy but have no fundamental objection to immigration from Europe. On the other are cultural conservatives who dislike the way immigration has changed Britain and want it to stop. 

Leading Brexit campaigner Boris Johnson, the former mayor of London, falls into the former category. In an editorial for the Daily Telegraph on Monday, he wrote that he did not believe “those who voted Leave were mainly driven by anxieties about immigration.” 

After arguing for months that the country needed to “take back control” of its immigration system, he barely mentioned the issue in his piece. Instead, he emphasized the need to forge “a new and better relationship with the EU — based on free trade and partnership.” 

Johnson, who is considered a leading candidate to succeed Cameron as prime minister, has been conspicuously quiet since the result was announced Friday. Many of his fellow pro-Brexit leaders have also gone to ground. 

Their silence has unnerved anti-immigration firebrands such as Nigel Farage, who wrote in a piece for Tuesday’s Times of London that he feared the Tories were “backsliding” on the issue that he said most animated voters during the referendum campaign. 

“The suggestion that a post-Brexit Britain would retain open borders even just for workers would be totally unacceptable,” Farage wrote. 

That may be true among Brexit voters. But it does not appear to be the case among the handful of Conservative politicians likely to vie for Cameron’s job, none of whom have made an immigration crackdown a core issue. 

One likely candidate, Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt, argued in a Telegraph editorial that London should push for an agreement he described as “Norway plus,” in which Britain gets “full access to the single market with a sensible compromise on free movement rules.” 

Such a deal would likely do little to satisfy voters who had hoped life outside the E.U. would bring a much more sweeping change to the immigration system. Johnson himself had argued for “an Australian-style points system” in which immigrants would be admitted based on their skills, and Europeans would enjoy no inherent advantage over those from other parts of the globe.

The muddle coming from London led some E.U. leaders to suggest — not without some schadenfreude — that they had little to discuss with Britain until the political establishment decides whether it wants a full split from the E.U.

“The British people were quite clear on this,” said E.U. foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini. “But we are receiving contradictory messages from, to use an understatement, a rather confused political scene in London.”

Witte reported from London. Anthony Faiola in Berlin and Brian Murphy in Washington contributed to this report.


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