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European Union leaders pledge success as a 27-nation bloc, leave Britain’s seat empty

Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, left, speaks with European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker after an EU summit in Brussels on Wednesday, June 29, 2016.
(Geert Vanden Wijngaert/Associated Press)

European Union leaders Wednesday put a brave face on Britain’s decision to leave the common market, insisting that the 27 nations remaining in the bloc can succeed despite the departure of its second-largest economy.

The presidents and prime ministers at the second day of an EU summit in Brussels pointedly left Britain’s seat at the meeting table empty -- a potent symbol of change as they cobbled together common policies on dealing with the aftermath of country’s announced plans to leave the group.

The 27 leaders said they would take a firm line with Britain in separation negotiations and under no circumstances accept any free-trade deals that fail to allow for the free movement of people – a major stumbling block. They also said there would be no talks until Britain formally requests to leave the EU.

The victory by British voters in favor of leaving the EU in last week’s referendum stunned Europe. The EU has for decades been growing in numbers and influence as it attempted to forge an ever-closer union to prevent wars, increase security and create economic prosperity.

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The prospect of losing of about one-sixth of the EU’s economic output represents a major setback and risks galvanizing “leave” movements in other member countries.

But the EU has been battle-tested through a series of crises in recent years, from the financial meltdown of 2008 to terror attacks to the sovereign debt turmoil that threatened to destroy the single-currency union. EU leaders seemed doubly determined to show they are ready, willing and able to deal with Britain’s departure from the common market in an orderly fashion.

The remaining leaders made clear after their meeting that Britain will not get any kind of special treatment once it is outside the EU. Britain would like to maintain close economic ties yet the continued insistence that it be allowed to put limits on the free movement of people from the rest of Europe appears to be an almost insurmountable hurdle to those ambitions.

Some EU leaders expressed an eagerness to see Britain punished with harsh separation terms to frighten off backers of other nascent anti-EU movements in countries such as the Netherlands, France and Denmark.

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Others, aware that Britain has already been pelted by powerful forces on financial markets that have wiped out more than $2 trillion of its wealth and cost it its AAA rating, would like to take the opportunity to push for even greater integration now that Britain, long an obstacle to a more socialist EU super-state, is on the way out.

But at the end of the day the consensus centered around the cautious, middle-of-the-road course outlined by German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the leader of the EU’s largest economy.

“Britain’s departure is a very serious situation,” Merkel told reporters Wednesday, a day after she had warned Britain not to “delude itself” thinking it could “cherry-pick” the parts of the EU it finds agreeable while rejecting the rest.“The faster that any uncertainty is eliminated, the better that is, obviously. This definitely won’t increase economic growth. But it’s difficult to predict right now what the exact economic consequences will be for Europe.”

She reiterated that it is up to Britain to apply to leave by invoking Article 50 of the EU’s Lisbon Treaty and added she hoped “that happens as quickly as possible.” She said other EU leaders agreed that going forward the EU needs to be “more nimble and more determined.”

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The exact timing of the “Brexit” remained murky. British Prime Minister David Cameron has already reneged on a promise made during the referendum campaign to initiate the procedures for Britain to leave the EU right away – a process that could take two years.

After losing the vote last week, he resigned and said he would leave that decision on when to invoke Article 50 to his successor – who is not expected to be in place until sometime in September.

NEWSLETTER: Get the day’s top headlines from Times Editor Davan Maharaj >>

Cameron, who was at the summit Tuesday, blamed the EU’s rules allowing free movement of workers for his defeat in the referendum. That claim was quickly rejected by the EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, who said the Brexit vote was instead caused by years of “Brussels bashing” by Cameron and other British leaders.

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“If, over the years if not decades, you tell citizens that something is wrong with the EU, that the EU is too technocratic, too bureaucratic, you can’t be taken by surprise if voters believe you,” Juncker said.

Cameron, who was not invited to Wednesday’s “informal meeting” of the EU leaders, returned to London and jumped into what promises to be an ugly succession battle at home – both for his job as leader of the Conservative party as well as the leadership of the main opposition Labor Party.

“For heaven’s sake, man, go!” Cameron told lawmakers in a debate in Parliament, referring to Labor leader Jeremy Corbyn, who lost a confidence vote in his party on Tuesday for his lukewarm support of the campaign to keep Britain in the EU but refused to resign.

EU leaders in Brussels made abundantly clear that there is no chance of Britain obtaining access to the common market of some 440 million consumers without allowing the free movement of people as well as goods.

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“If they don’t want free movement, they won’t have access to the single market,” French President Francois Hollande said.

The arrival in Brussels of Scotland’s leader Nicola Sturgeon on Wednesday added another element of drama. Sturgeon, Scotland’s first minister and advocate of Scottish independence, met with some EU leaders such as Juncker and Martin Schulz, the president of the EU parliament.

But EU Council President Donald Tusk and other EU leaders opted not to meet her because they did not want to expose themselves to criticism from the British government that they were trying to encourage Scotland’s secession from Britain.

It would have to become a sovereign state before it could join the EU – something that Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy expressed strong doubts about Wednesday over fears it could encourage separatist movements in Spain.

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“Scotland is determined to stay in the EU,” Sturgeon said after meeting Schulz. “It’s my responsibility to ensure that Scotland’s voice is heard in Europe and I intend to do so.”

She added that the British government needed “to get a grip” and deal with the fallout of Brexit. She urged both the “Remain” and “Leave” leaders to “be clear and honest about their plans.”

Kirschbaum is a special correspondent.

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