Merkel warns British against ‘deluding themselves’ in departure from EU

German Chancellor Angela Merkel at a special session of the German parliament on "Brexit" in Berlin.
(John MacDougall / AFP/Getty Images)

Britain may have just lost the last friend it had in the European Union, less than a week after the country voted to abandon the group of nations that had been a pillar of peace and prosperity for the last six decades. German Chancellor Angela Merkel warned in no uncertain terms Tuesday that Britain can forget about any special favors or advantageous trading privileges with the EU.

“I can only urge our friends in Britain against deluding themselves,” said Merkel, who has quietly emerged as the EU’s most powerful leader during her 10 years guiding the union’s largest economy and most populous nation.

Meanwhile, fallout from the referendum continued to shake up the political landscape in Britain. Labor party leader Jeremy Corbyn lost a confidence vote among party lawmakers, though he said in a statement that he would not resign.

Also on Tuesday, UK Independence party leader Nigel Farage was booed as he addressed the European Parliament. He said that other member states would soon follow Britain’s lead in leaving the union, and scoffed at the idea that Britain would lose out on trade with the EU. “Between your countries and my country, we do an enormous amount of business in goods and services,” Farage said. “That trade is mutually beneficial to both of us. That trade matters. If you were to decide to cut off your noses to spite your faces and to reject any idea of a sensible trade deal, the consequences would be far worse for you than it would be for us.”


In the initial aftermath of Britain’s vote to leave the union, Merkel had struck a conciliatory note, saying on Saturday and again Monday that nothing would change until Britain itself made a formal request to leave the EU. But her tone cooled on Tuesday after a Monday evening meeting in Berlin with French President Francois Hollande, Italy’s Prime Minister Matteo Renzi and EU Commission President Donald Tusk.

All three want the EU to take a tougher line to discourage other nations from following Britain’s example. Anti-EU sentiment is already running high in countries such as the Netherlands, France and Denmark.

Merkel said Britain’s decision to “leave the family” was regrettable, but also a chance for a new start – music to the ears of more interventionist governments in France, Italy and Spain that had clashed with Britain over its foot-dragging in the EU. They now hope to turn the EU into more of a socialist superstate with greater federal authority as an antidote to a prolonged period of weak economic growth.

“We’re going to ensure that there won’t be any cherry-picking in the negotiations,” Merkel said, dousing hopes nurtured in Britain that it might get the best of both worlds after leaving the EU: open access to the union’s market of some 500 million people without having to accept the principles of freedom of movement for its people that are at the core of the EU. Merkel was uncharacteristically blunt in saying that isn’t going to happen.

“Anyone who wants to leave this family can’t for a moment be allowed to think they can keep all the privileges of membership without carrying any of the responsibilities,” she said to loud applause from members of parliament in Berlin’s Reichstag building before flying to Brussels for a two-day summit with the leaders of the 28 EU member states. “There will obviously have to be a perceptible difference between countries in the EU family and those on the outside.”

Her remarks seemed to pour cold water on the hopes Boris Johnson expressed Monday that Britain would continue to benefit from being part of Europe. Johnson, an outspoken pro-leave leader in Britain’s Conservative party, is a top candidate to succeed lame-duck Prime Minster David Cameron, who said he would resign after leading the failed remain campaign. Amid a financial market meltdown after the vote and growing public anger in Britain over immediate backsliding on leave campaign promises, Johnson also said he expects there will be increased cooperation between Britain and the EU after “Brexit” – even though many who voted to leave the EU did so in the belief that it would enable Britain to stop the flow of immigrants to the country.

Merkel pointed out that Norway – one country outside the EU that nevertheless enjoys close trade ties – also accepts the EU’s core demand of freedom of movement for its citizens. “The basic freedom of access has to be accepted for there to be free access to the EU market,” Merkel said. “Norway has access because it freely accepts immigration from the EU.”


Merkel also appeared to raise the bar on the looming divorce negotiations with Britain. She said there would be no talks at all with the British government until it submits an application to leave, which will start the clock ticking for a two-year period to hammer out the terms of the split. Even though Cameron had said the application to leave would be submitted right after the referendum, he has since backpedaled and said that step would have to be made by his successor – indicating a prolonged process that could last two months or more.

Full coverage: Britain votes to leave the European Union >>

“Let there be no mistake about it,” said Merkel, who rarely speaks in such pointed terms as she did in Tuesday’s remarks, “before the application to leave is submitted, there will be no preliminary discussions whatsoever with Britain about their wish to leave, either on a formal or informal basis.”

“The EU is strong enough to handle Britain’s exit,” she added.


Thomas Oppermann, the parliamentary floor leader of the center-left Social Democrats, junior coalition partners to Merkel’s conservatives, told parliament after Merkel’s speech that it is important to take a hard line against Britain in Brussels, at the summit and beyond.

“There can be no rewards for leaving the EU, and no bonus for nationalism or anti-EU attitudes,” he said.


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9:17 a.m.: This article was updated with Labor party leader Jeremy Corbyn losing a confidence vote.


This article was originally published at 7:41 a.m.