The European Union’s 27 remaining members will meet to assess its future next week without Britain, the president of the European council, Donald Tusk, has said, as the bloc struggles to absorb the seismic implications of the UK’s decision to leave.
Tusk said he had spoken to EU leaders in the past few days and the union had been prepared for the result and was determined to keep its unity. “There is no hiding the fact that we wanted a different outcome of yesterday’s referendum,” he said in Brussels on Friday.
“There is no way of predicting all the political consequences of this event – especially for the UK. It is a historic moment, but not a moment for hysterical reactions.”
Tusk promised to convene informal discussions without the British prime minister, David Cameron, on the margins of a scheduled EU summit next week, as well as a wider reflection on the future of the union. “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” he said.
EU leaders and officials will spend Friday scrambling to prepare for a pre-summit crisis session this weekend. Priorities will be preventing further Eurosceptic contagion spreading through EU ranks – and the euro currency. Although the tiny population of Greenland left the European Economic Community in 1985, never before has a sovereign country served its notice to the world’s biggest trading bloc.
Martin Schulz, the president of the European parliament, said he would speak to the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, “on how to avoid a chain reaction” of other EU states following Britain. Merkel was meeting cabinet ministers and parliamentary leaders to discuss the consequences of the UK vote this morning.
“The chain reaction being celebrated everywhere now by Eurosceptics won’t happen,” Schulz said, adding that the EU was the world’s biggest single market and “Britain has just cut its ties with that market. That’ll have consequences, and I don’t believe other countries will be encouraged to follow that dangerous path.”
Manfred Weber, the chairman of the European People’s party group of centre-right parties in the European parliament, stressed that Britain had crossed a line and there was no going back.
The vote “causes major damage to both sides”, Weber said. “Exit negotiations should be concluded within two years at max. There cannot be any special treatment. Leave means leave.”
Elsewhere in Europe, Germany’s foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, was one of the first to react, calling the result “truly sobering … It looks like a sad day for Europe and the United Kingdom.”
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Sigmar Gabriel, the head of Germany’s Social Democrats – the coalition partners in Merkel’s government – said the British vote does not signal the downfall of Europe, but rather “the chance for a new beginning.”
He called Brexit a “shrill wake up call” for European politicians. “Whoever fails to heed it or takes refuge in the usual rituals, will drive Europe against the wall,” Gabriel said.
In Paris, the French foreign minister, Jean-Marc Ayrault, tweeted that the decision was “sad for the United Kingdom”, adding that while Europe would carry on “it must react and win back the trust of its people. It is urgent.”
President François Hollande was expected to speak after a cabinet meeting on Friday morning, but warned on Wednesday that Brexit would “have extremely serious consequences”.
The Belgian prime minister, Charles Michel, called for a special “conclave” of EU leaders as early as next month. “We need to keep a cool head and need to see what new way of cooperation would be possible,” he said.
The Polish foreign minister, Witold Waszczykowski, said the result showed “disillusionment with European integration, and declining trust in the EU”. He sought to reassure at least 850,000 Poles living in Britain that “during talks (…) we will aim to guarantee the rights citizens have acquired”.
Italy’s prime minister, Matteo Renzi, tweeted: “We must change it to make it more human and more just. But Europe is our home, it’s our future.”
In Greece, there was mounting concern that the referendum result would intensify anti-European sentiment. “In the short term, Brexit may help Greece, because our allies will want to solidify and show solidarity,” a senior minister told the Guardian. “But in the long term, it will not. The prospect of Grexit will increase.”
Turkey, whose future membership of the EU played a key role in the UK referendum campaign, cast doubt on the likelihood of it joining in the aftermath of the Brexit vote. “The European Union’s disintegration has started,” deputy prime minister Nurettin Canikli tweeted. “Britain was the first to jump ship.”
The UK was the EU’s second-largest economy and largest military power. It will embark on the process of leaving as the union grapples with multiple crises: huge numbers of migrants, economic weakness and a nationalist Russia seeking to overturn the post-cold war order.
The leaders of the EU institutions were in crisis talks on Friday morning. Tusk was meeting Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European commission, and Schulz, the parliament president.
The Dutch prime minister, Mark Rutte, who faces his own battle with EU populists, will also attend, because the Netherlands holds the EU’s rotating presidency until 1 July.
But Brussels will look to Germany and France to show the world that Europe is still in business. Italy is likely to also play a role in crisis talks, although Spanish election on Sunday rule out much input from Madrid.
Cameron said in his resignation speech on Friday morning that it would be up to his successor, likely to be appointed within the next three months, to trigger the EU’s untested article 50 – effectively Britain’s letter of resignation from the union.
“The negotiation with the European Union will need to take place under the next prime minister,” Cameron said, “and the new prime minister takes the decision about whether to trigger article 50.” Once that is done, the clock starts running on two years of negotiations.
The UK has to negotiate two agreements: a divorce treaty to wind down British contributions to the EU budget and settle the status of the 1.2 million Britons living in the EU and 3 million EU citizens in the UK.
The second treaty will be more momentous for Britain’s future: an agreement to govern future trade and other ties with its European neighbours.
The process is likely to be difficult. Tusk has estimated that both agreements could take seven years to settle “without any guarantee of success”. Most Brussels insiders think this sounds optimistic.
There were early warnings of difficulties ahead. German MEP Elmar Brok, who chairs the European parliament’s committee on foreign affairs, told the Guardian the European Parliament would call on Juncker to strip the British commissioner, Jonathan Hill, of its financial services brief with immediate effect and turn him into a “commissioner without portfolio”.
“They will have to negotiate from the position of a third country, not as a member state. If Britain wants to have a similar status to Switzerland and Norway, then it will also have to pay into EU structural funds like those countries do. The British public will find out what that means”.
Jean-Claude Piris, a former head of the EU council legal service, predicts it will take eight to 10 years to negotiate a comprehensive trade deal, as well as UK participation in other EU policies, such as student exchange schemes or research.
He rubbished claims that Britain would get unfettered access to the single market, without free movement of people, as the equivalent of believing in “Father Christmas”. The British “cannot get as good a deal as they have now, it is impossible”, Piris added.
Some Brussels insiders fear France and Germany may soften their approach after the shock of the vote. Others think countries, especially France, will push for a harsh settlement to hammer home the price of leaving.
One likely outcome of negotiations is that banks and financial firms in the City of London will be stripped of their lucrative EU “passports” that allow them to sell services to the rest of the EU.
Although the long-term consequences of Brexit will be seismic, on paper, nothing changes immediately. The UK remains an EU member until it has finalised the terms of its divorce and is obliged to follow all EU rules.
In theory, the UK retains the decision-making privileges of membership; in reality, power will rapidly drain away. British diplomats can expect to be marginalised in the councils of Brussels, as no one sees the point of bothering about the UK when it is halfway to the door. MEPs will press for Juncker to sack Jonathan Hill, the UK’s EU commissioner, who holds the prized portfolio of financial services.
The UK will keep its veto in some areas, such as tax and foreign policy, but diplomats say Britain’s voice on other EU decisions, for example economy and business, will count for little.