BRUSSELS — Europe’s leaders on Tuesday planned to confront British Prime Minister David Cameron for the first time since his nation took a historic decision to split with the European Union.
Over dinner and canapés, the heads of the 27 remaining E.U. nations 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. But 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 smooth further chaos.
World markets and the pound recovered Tuesday after tumbling following the shock exit vote, suggesting that economic pandemonium may have stabilized, at least for the moment. Meanwhile, a growing chorus of British politicians were suggesting they may seek an arrangement with the European Union that would keep their nation as close to the bloc as possible without formally being a member of it.
European leaders will meet Wednesday without Cameron to discuss that idea, as well as a common bargaining position against Britain.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, now the undisputed leader of the bloc, made clear Tuesday that she would not allow the rebellious island nation to preserve its E.U. privileges while walking away from its obligations to allow the freedom of movement and labor.
“We will ensure that the negotiations will not be a matter of cherry-picking,” Merkel told the German parliament before she traveled to Brussels. “There will be a clear difference whether a country is a member of the European Union or does not want to be a member.”
The British departure has set off fears that other nations may follow, challenging the fabric of an alliance that has been woven together among more than two dozen very different nations. Some European leaders have said that the British exit, known as Brexit, 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.
“The shock of the referendum should be a wake-up call to us all,” said Dutch Minister of Defense Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert, speaking in front of the European Parliament on Tuesday. “We will have to do better.”
Cameron has insisted that Britain will wait until his successor is in place to trigger the exit talks, a step from which there would be no return. That has frustrated European leaders who worry about contagion, although by Tuesday they appeared resigned that they could do little to alter Britain’s course.
“We cannot be embroiled in lasting uncertainty,” said European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, speaking in the European Parliament in French, a linguistic decision that aides said was intended to send a message that English was fading as an official language of Brussels with the British departure. “The British vote has cut off one of our wings, as it were, but we’re still flying.”
Britain is hardly prepared for talks to begin, with its politics in chaos, its currency reeling and its leadership in question. Since the British public voted to leave the E.U. on Thursday, the top advocates for an exit have been nearly invisible, and Cameron has deferred to his as-yet-unknown successor all the critical questions of how an exit will play out.
The ambiguity has unsettled investors and will likely make for awkward exchanges when Cameron meets other E.U. leaders whose organization has just been spurned by Britain’s voters.
In the first session of Parliament since Thursday’s historic vote, Cameron said Monday that his country alone will set the timetable to launch the talks for the split.
“This is our sovereign decision,” Cameron said in an appearance in the House of Commons that was met with rapturous applause. “It will be for Britain and Britain alone to take.”
Cameron was adamant, however, that Britain will leave: Despite campaigning relentlessly for a vote to “remain,” the prime minister said the will of the public “must be accepted.”
He also seemed to dash the hopes — however faint — of the millions of Britons who have signed a petition in recent days pushing for a rerun of the referendum in the expectation that the 52 percent to 48 percent “leave” victory will be reversed.
“I’m not planning a second referendum,” Cameron said.
Cameron’s early September departure date, set on Monday by a committee that decides the rules for picking a new prime minister, is a month earlier than he had stated when he announced his resignation plans Friday.
The new date might suggest a concession to European leaders who have been pushing for Britain to move more quickly to invoke Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty — the mechanism by which countries can leave the European Union.
It is not clear how much leverage Europe has to push Britain into an even earlier exit. But European leaders — particularly the French — have not been shy in arguing for a fast breakup in order to end the uncertainty. Financial policymakers and others worry that dragging out the British break could accentuate the turbulence that has already taken a toll on global markets.
After markets closed in London on Monday, the Standard & Poor’s Global Ratings agency stripped Britain of its triple-A rating — a humiliating blow for the country and one that could cost its economy.
With the unity of the E.U.’s 27 other members on the line, top European leaders have taken a tough line with Britain. Germany has taken a seemingly more nuanced tack than the hard-line French, and some German officials even appeared to hold out hope that Britain might not leave after all.
Britain’s political system, as well as its economy, have been thrown into turmoil by the outcome of the referendum, which was not expected by the markets, analysts or perhaps even the politicians who campaigned for a departure.
Both of Britain’s main parties — Conservative and Labour — are now effectively engaged in civil wars, with the soul of both up for grabs.
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn faced an onslaught of defections from his senior ranks on Monday, and is expected to lose a vote of confidence on Tuesday — triggering a fresh leadership contest less than a year after the hard-liner first won control of the party.
The Conservative leadership struggle, meanwhile, will determine who succeeds Cameron as prime minister.
Leading Brexit advocate Boris Johnson, the former mayor of London, is considered the favorite. But he has said little about his plan for the country post-Brexit, has not submitted to detailed questioning from the media since Thursday and was not present for Cameron’s appearance in the House of Commons on Monday.
Johnson wrote a commentary for 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.”
Johnson also suggested he is in no hurry for Britain to start negotiations to leave the bloc, despite campaigning for months for an exit from what he depicted as a tyrannical Brussels bureaucracy that rode roughshod over British democracy.
Faiola reported from Berlin.