— Deeply shaken by Britain
’s vote to quit the European Union
, the bloc’s leaders met on Tuesday to confront their most urgent conundrum: how to calm the crisis in hopes it fades away, while making the British decision so painful that no other country follows.
The leaders of what, for the moment, is still a bloc of 28 countries all agree that the European Union needs an overhaul. The two-day summit meeting that started Tuesday with Prime Minister David Cameron of Britain in attendance for perhaps the last time began the long and divisive effort to rebuild the cornerstone of Europe’s peace and relative prosperity for more than 60 years.
Europe’s leaders also face the more immediate task of handling the tensions building over Britain’s desire to seek a divorce while stalling on a formal application.
They want the process to go as smoothly and as quickly as possible and to contain the economic damage, but not so painlessly for Britain as to encourage populist movements in other wavering nations to push for destabilizing referendums of their own.
Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany
tried to thread that needle in a speech to the German Parliament Tuesday before leaving for Brussels, warning that Britain would suffer as a result of its “Brexit” vote and could not expect to enjoy the privileges of membership, like access to Europe’s single market, while sloughing off its burdens.
“Whoever wants to leave this family cannot expect to have no more obligations but to keep the privileges,” she said. “There must be and will be a noticeable difference between whether a country wants to be a member of the European Union family or not.”
The shock vote last week in Britain has done more than embolden populist forces that denounce the European Union as a distant and meddling force that mainly serves elites. It has also brought to the surface deep pools of bitterness and anger left by earlier crises, notably a grinding economic slowdown and an uncontrolled influx of migrants across Europe’s open borders.
Instead of dealing with just the crisis of confidence set off by the vote for Brexit, as Britain’s exit from the European bloc is called, leaders are effectively confronting all the crises of recent years at one time. Still unresolved are arguments over austerity, the German-led prescription for a financial crisis that began in Greece
in 2008, and whether the European Union should be merely a free-trade zone or the locomotive of a more ambitious program of “ever closer union,” a cause enshrined in the 1957 Treaty of Rome
Arriving for the summit meeting, Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras of Greece — whose country voted in a referendum last year to reject a financial bailout offered by Brussels only to accept even harsher terms to avoid expulsion from Europe’s common currency — described the British referendum result as a “sad wake-up call” that should force the European Union to abandon policies of austerity and “endless negotiations behind closed doors.”
“Let us make Europe more attractive to its people,” he said. But how to do this when there is no real agreement on what the role of the European Union should be — traffic cop that merely keeps trade flowing, or full-fledged state.
At the European Parliament on Tuesday, members of the assembly were united in calls for change but offered no common vision of how. “Europe needs change. But we want to improve it, not destroy it,” said Manfred Weber, a center-right ally of Ms. Merkel’s. The British vote, Mr. Weber said, “was a victory for the populists and Europe is now at a crossroads.”
Mindful that Europe’s identity crisis is unlikely to be settled anytime soon, the leaders of the Czech Republic, Hungary
and Slovakia urged the European Union to “get back to basics” and focus on reinforcing basic freedoms and building a single market.
“Instead of endless theoretical debates on ‘more Europe’ or ‘less Europe’ we need to focus on ‘better Europe,’ the leaders of the four countries, all formerly communist, said in a statement on Tuesday.
What this “better Europe” — a popular slogan now used by politicians who agree on little else — would look like exactly is unclear. What is clear, however, is that skepticism over the purpose and merits of the European Union as it works now is on the rise across wide sections of the Continent.
A spring survey by the Pew Research Center found that while support for the bloc remains strong in Poland and Hungary, which have benefited greatly from infusions of funds from Brussels, just 27 percent of Greek, 38 percent of French
and 47 percent of Spanish
citizens hold a favorable view.
Positive views of the European Union fell, often substantially, in five of the six countries surveyed by Pew in both 2015 and 2016. Even Germany, where strong support for the so-called European project had been an unwavering feature of postwar politics, euroskepticism is on the rise, with 48 percent of those polled saying they had an unfavorable view of the bloc.
Speaking Monday as he arrived for the summit meeting, President François Hollande of France said the “situation today in the United Kingdom,” with political turmoil, a plunging currency and credit rating downgrades, should alert other Europeans of the need to stick together. “Many people today are asking the same question,” he said. “What do we do if confronted by the same choice” that British voters faced last Thursday.
The Swedish prime minister, Stefan Lofven, said the first task was for “Britain to make up its mind” about its intentions. But he added that the bloc as a whole then needed to figure out a way to connect more with ordinary people.
“We need to develop much more of a citizens’ union. We need to make much more clear that this is an organization for European citizens,” he said. Mr. Lofven, a Social Democrat, gave no clear picture of how this might be done, offering only an appeal for more jobs and better social services.
The first and vital task facing leaders meeting in Brussels is the divorce settlement with Britain, which voted to quit but has so far stalled on formally starting the separation process. The question of when Britain will invoke Article 50, opening negotiations, has dominated discussion in London and some other capitals, but has left some leaders cold.
“I think it’s utterly disappointing that, when we are faced with the biggest political crisis in the history of the European Union, what’s grabbing the headlines is the obscure Article 50,” Joseph Muscat, the prime minister of Malta, told reporters in Brussels. The far more important issue, he said, is “that this is a Europe that people are feeling increasingly estranged from and that it is our duty that we take action.”
Mr. Cameron, who has said he will step down by October, wants the divorce negotiations handled by his successor. This has infuriated many of his peers, though several leaders have taken the delay as a sign that Britain might, in the end, decide to stay in the European Union.
Asked on Monday how she would respond to such an about-face, President Dalia Grybauskaite of Lithuania
beamed and said, “Welcome, welcome back!”
A more widely held view is that, having voted to bolt, Britain needs to make a swift and clean break so as to contain the Brexit contagion and stop it spreading to other countries, notably France, where the far-right National Front has called for the country to hold its own referendum on whether to leave. Populist parties in Denmark
and the Netherlands
want to do the same.
Even Ms. Merkel, who over the weekend warned against pushing Britain to leave hastily and said Europe should not be “nasty” toward Mr. Cameron, struck a tougher tone on Tuesday, shifting toward a position staked out earlier by France and others that Britain must pay a price for leaving as a deterrent to other nations tempted by populist promises.