Britain, EU at odds over timing of divorce talks

Pro-EU supporters hold placards and banners during a 'Yes to Europe' rally in London's Trafalgar square, ahead of Thursday's EU referendum, in central London. (Niklas Halle'n, AFP)
Pro-EU supporters hold placards and banners during a 'Yes to Europe' rally in London's Trafalgar square, ahead of Thursday's EU referendum, in central London. (Niklas Halle'n, AFP)

London - Britain and the European Union haven't even begun divorce talks yet but were already bickering on Saturday as the political and economic shockwaves from the British vote to leave the bloc reverberated around the world.

Senior EU politicians, rattled by a result that few saw coming, told Britain on Saturday to hurry up and trigger the formal exit process - something the UK insists won't happen for several months.

"There is a certain urgency... so that we don't have a period of uncertainty, with financial consequences, political consequences," French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault said at a meeting in Berlin of the EU's six founding nations.

Britons voted 52% to 48% on Thursday in favour of ending their country's 43-year membership in the 28-nation bloc. England's 300-year-old union with Scotland could be another casualty of the referendum, since most people in Scotland voted to remain in the EU but were outvoted by a majority in much-larger England.

Scottish leader Nicola Sturgeon said her semi-autonomous administration would seek immediate talks with EU nations and institutions to ensure that Scotland could remain in the bloc despite the UK-wide vote to leave.

"[We will explore possible options to protect Scotland's place in the EU," she said after meeting with her Cabinet in Edinburgh, adding that a new referendum on Scottish independence from the United Kingdom is "very much on the table."

Trigger rush

Scotland voted in 2014 to remain a part of the UK, but that decision was seen by many as being conditional on the UK remaining in the EU.

The victorious "Leave" campaigners in Thursday's referendum have said there is no rush to trigger Article 50 of the EU's Lisbon treaty, which will begin a two-year exit process to renegotiate trade, business and political links between the UK and what will become a 27-nation bloc.

British Prime Minister David Cameron announced his resignation on Friday and said his successor, to be chosen by October, should be the one to start the process of withdrawing from the bloc.

The favourite to succeed him, former London Mayor Boris Johnson, has said there's "no need for haste" - but EU leaders are saying the opposite, in insistent tones.

European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker said on Saturday that the British had voted to leave and "it doesn't make any sense to wait until October to try and negotiate the terms of their departure".

"I would like to get started immediately," he said.

Juncker said the split was "not an amicable divorce" - but noted it was never "a tight love affair anyway".

Top diplomats from the European Union's six founding nations - France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg - met in Berlin for hastily arranged talks and stressed that the exit process should be speedy.

Luxembourg Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn said he hoped there would be no "cat and mouse" games.

"There must be clarity," Asselborn told reporters. "The people have spoken and we need to implement this decision."

France's Ayrault suggested Britain could name a new prime minister within "several days", - but in reality that is likely to take several months. The process calls for Conservative lawmakers to winnow candidates down to two choices who will then be voted on in a postal ballot of party members.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel struck a less urgent tone, saying it "shouldn't take forever" for Britain to deliver its formal notification of leaving "but I would not fight over a short period of time".

"There is no need to be particularly nasty in any way in the negotiations. They must be conducted properly," Merkel said at a news conference in Potsdam, outside Berlin.

Britain's "Leave" campaigners have been accused of lacking a plan for the aftermath of a victory, and Johnson and other Brexit leaders were keeping quiet on Saturday.

Dominic Cummings, director of the "Vote Leave" group, said it would be "unthinkable" to invoke Article 50 before a new prime minister was in place. He tweeted: "David Cameron was quite right. New PM will need to analyse options and have informal talks."

Britain will remain an EU member until the divorce is finalised, but its influence inside the bloc is already waning. Leaders of the bloc will hold a summit in Brussels next week, and the second day, Wednesday, will take place for the first time without Britain.

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