British leaders seek time to exit EU, but Europe may push to begin break – Washington Post

With British politics in chaos, the country’s leaders stalled for time Monday to get their own house in order before triggering negotiations to leave the European Union, a point from which there will be no turning back.

But pressure was coming on various fronts.

Before an E.U. summit in Brussels on Tuesday, some members have urged Britain to begin the exit talks as soon as possible. Financial policymakers and others, meanwhile, worry that dragging out the British break could bring further uncertainties that have already taken a toll on global markets.

The pound fell further, hitting a 31-year low against the dollar, in trading Monday, and European stock markets opened weaker. But exchanges worldwide appeared generally more stable compared with Friday’s turmoil, when the results of the British referendum were announced. Wall Street also was expected to open lower.

British Prime Minister David Cameron has said that he will step down by October and allow a new leader to invoke Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, the mechanism by which Britain can become the first country to leave the bloc.

Even advocates for an exit reiterated their support for Cameron’s call for a delay. That, in turn, has sparked hope — however faint — among British supporters of E.U. membership that somehow the country can avoid what they regard as a calamitous departure.

But it was unclear whether Britain’s European counterparts would allow London the luxury of time.

French Finance Minister Michel Sapin continued to insist that Britain should not wait to launch the process to leave, popularly known as Brexit.

“Should Britain go quickly? Yes. France, like Germany, thinks that Britain voted, Britain voted for Brexit, and the Brexit should be put in place starting now,” Sapin told France 2 television Monday.

Yet even as a number of leaders across the continent called for a rip-off-the-Band-Aid approach, the Germans appeared to be staking out a somewhat more-nuanced position.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s chief of staff, Peter Altmaier, has suggested that Berlin still held out hope of a way forward that would leave Britain inside the European Union.

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In an interview with the RedaktionsNetzwerk Deutschland newspaper published Sunday, Atlmaier said politicians in London should be given an opportunity to reevaluate the “consequences” of exiting the bloc, suggesting that the Germans think there might still be a chance to keep Britain in the fold with the 27 other E.U. nations.

Ahead of a series of high-level meetings in Berlin with the leaders of France, Italy and president of the European Council, German Chancellor Angela Merkel ruled out “informal negotiations” that could buy London time. Yet she also appeared more flexible than other voices in Europe calling for an immediate start of break talks with London.

Merkel said, “we can’t afford an extended waiting game.” But, she added,

Yet the Germans, at the same time, appeared to be offering the British a window of opportunity to turn back the clock.

Jürgen Hardt, foreign policy spokesman in the German Parliament for the ruling coalition and a close Merkel ally, suggested Berlin would indeed be willing to give London more time if there were clear indications that British politicians were moving to find a way to remain in the E.U. despite the vote.

“There is only one reason why the British government should ask for more time. This would be that it is reconsidering the decision to leave the E.U.” Hardt said, but also noting that Britain has an obligation to act quickly if there is no way to pull back from the decision.

“I think it’s a question of fairness,” he said. “The UK government now must take responsibility for the decision and what I see is a lack of willingness to take responsibility. “

And at home, Merkel was coming under growing domestic pressure to come down harder on the British. Axel Schäfer, deputy chairman of the Social Democratic Party bloc in the German parliament, told the DPA news agency that the party “will not accept a single day in which the chancellor buckles to premier David Cameron’s time dictate.”

Highlighting yet another challenge for British-exit campaigners, the E.U. official said that Britain could not sign new trade agreements with the European Union while it was still formally a member. That meant there would be at least some period of a legal vacuum in which the old relationship has terminated before the details of the new one have been approved — a limbo that could send tariffs temporarily skyrocketing.

Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne sought to reassure financial markets, saying that Britain was ready for whatever the months ahead may bring.

“It will not be plain sailing in the days ahead,” he said. “But let me be clear: You should not underestimate our resolve. We were prepared for the unexpected.”

The tone of the comments was at odds with what the pro-E.U. Obsorne said in the run-up to Thursday’s vote, when he forecast an economic maelstrom if Britain opted to leave.

There was a fresh indication Monday, though, that Britain’s economic future could still be stormy. A major business group, the Institute of Directors, said a survey revealed that 20 percent of its members planned to move some of their operations outside the country if Brexit came to be.

Osborne was among those Monday who preached a go-slow approach, saying that Britain should launch negotiations only “when there is a clear view about what new arrangement we are seeking with our European neighbors.”

So far, that view has been cloudy at best. Even among those who advocated for Brexit, there are vastly different visions of what the country should look like in its post-E.U. incarnation.

The top leaders of the Brexit campaign have been largely out of sight for days after declaring victory Friday. Leading Brexit advocate Boris Johnson, the former mayor of London, was seen playing cricket over the weekend, but he has not submitted to detailed questioning from the media.

Johnson penned an op-ed in Monday’s Daily Telegraph that seemed to walk back promises that a non-E.U. Britain would be able to dramatically limit immigration, which was a core voter concern.

“It is said that those who voted Leave were mainly driven by anxieties about immigration,” he wrote. “I do not believe that is so.”

Cameron on Monday hosted a cabinet meeting — the first since the vote — to try to forge a common British position before he travels to Brussels for Tuesday’s summit. The prime minister was also due to address the House of Commons on Tuesday.

The complex process of negotiating the terms of the separation from the European Union has suddenly collided with a leadership crisis triggered by a voter revolt against the nation’s political establishment. Both of Britain’s main parties — Conservative and Labour — are now effectively engaged in civil wars, with the leadership of both up for grabs.

Sunday opened with news that Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn had fired one of the most senior members of his leadership team, Hilary Benn, after Benn told the leader he had lost confidence in him.

The sacking of Benn led to a succession of resignations by other members of the Labour cabinet. By late in the day, at least 10 others had quit their positions in what amounted to a rolling repudiation of Corbyn’s leadership by his elected colleagues.

On Sunday night, Corbyn again said he would not be pushed out.

The resignations continued Monday, with Deputy Leader Tom Watson telling Corbyn that he had lost the support of his party. But there was still no indication that Corbyn would step aside.

The fate of Corbyn is seen as secondary to the question of who will lead the Conservatives, as that person will immediately become prime minister upon Cameron’s official resignation.

Johnson is considered the favorite to take over from Cameron. But the flamboyant Johnson is a magnet for controversy. Newspapers on Sunday were filled with reports of efforts by other Conservatives to deny him the post he has long been maneuvering to claim.

The candidate seen as most likely to challenge Johnson is Home Secretary Theresa May, who backed the “remain” camp in the referendum but did so reluctantly and is seen as a potential bridge between the party’s warring factions.

The most visible leader in Britain in the days since the vote has been Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s first minister and the head of the Scottish National Party. On Sunday, she continued to press for a new independence referendum, a move that could lead to the dismantlement of the United Kingdom.

Scotland’s voters rejected a similar referendum in 2014. But “the U.K. that Scotland voted to remain within in 2014 isn’t there anymore,” Sturgeon said Sunday on BBC Scotland.

Scotland voted strongly to remain in the European Union. Sturgeon has said she would seek negotiations directly with European leaders in Brussels in an effort to keep Scotland in the European Union as a way to protect the region’s economic interests.

Sturgeon on Sunday also raised the possibility of the Scottish Parliament blocking Britain from leaving the European Union, but other officials said that they doubted that was within the powers of the Scottish body and that withholding consent would not amount to a veto.

In Brussels, Secretary of State John F. Kerry huddled with top E.U. officials before heading to London for further crisis talks with Cameron and British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond.

“It is absolutely essential that we stay focused on how in this transitional period, nobody loses their head, nobody goes off half-cocked, people don’t start ginning up scatterbrained or revengeful premises,” Kerry said. He wanted to “look for ways to maintain the strength that will serve the interest and the values that brought us together in the first place.”

Kerry and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg told reporters that Britain’s E.U. exit will make NATO even more important for U.S. and European security cooperation.

“I think we all anticipate an even stronger NATO going forward,” Kerry said, “because the clarity is going to be important.”

Faiola reported from Berlin. Simon Denyer in Beijing, Michael Birnbaum in Brussels and Brian Murphy in Washington contributed to this report.


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