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Global Leaders Lament Britain's Choice to Leave EU

by Jonas Bernstein, Joshua Fatzick June 24, 2016

The British people on Thursday voted by a narrow margin to break away from the European Union, a move that some European leaders labeled a grave mistake.

"We take note of the British people's decision with regret," German Chancellor Angela Merkel said Friday. "There is no doubt that this is a blow to Europe and to the European unification process."

Merkel added that she would host talks with the leaders of France and Italy and European Council President Donald Tusk in Berlin on Monday.

Also next week, Tusk will host the first EU summit without Britain to discuss the British decision to leave the union. David Cameron, who announced Friday morning that he would step down as British prime minister later this year, will attend only the first day of the two-day summit, which starts Tuesday.

Earlier Friday, Tusk said Britain had made a mistake in leaving the EU, the world's largest single market. "That'll have consequences," he said. "And I don't believe other countries will be encouraged to follow that dangerous path."

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said he knew Britain "will remain a strong and committed NATO ally, and will continue to play its leading role" in the alliance, which he said in a statement "remains committed to closer cooperation with the European Union."

'Bad day' for Europe

In a message posted on his official Twitter account, German Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel described the vote as a "bad day for Europe."

French President Francois Hollande said he deeply regretted the decision for Britain "and for Europe, but the choice is theirs and we must respect it."

French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault took to Twitter to air his displeasure with the vote, saying he was "sad for the United Kingdom."

"Europe will continue but it must react and rediscover the confidence of its peoples. It's urgent," Ayrault said.

A spokesman for U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said he expected that the EU would continue to be "a solid partner" for the United Nations, and that the United Kingdom would "continue to exercise its leadership in many areas."

International Monetary Fund Managing Director Christine Lagarde called on U.K. and European authorities to work "collaboratively" to ensure a "smooth transition" to a new economic relationship, and to clarify the procedures that will guide the process.

High voter turnout

More than 70 percent of registered voters participated in the referendum, in which the campaign for the U.K. to leave the union was approved by a margin of nearly 4 percentage points. The referendum was seen by many "Leave" supporters as reflecting British sentiment on immigration, sovereignty, security and national economic future.

Several European leaders saw the successful British EU exit as an opportunity to push for similar referendums in their countries, including France's far-right leader Marine Le Pen, who hailed the Brexit decision as a "victory for freedom."

"As I have been asking for years, we must now have the same referendum in France and EU countries," the National Front leader said on Twitter.

Netherlands wants referendum

Dutch Freedom Party leader Geert Wilders called for the Netherlands to hold a referendum on its EU membership shortly after news broke of the results. Wilders, who is currently leading in opinion polls, said that if elected prime minister in the country's March general election, he would call for a referendum.

"We want be in charge of our own country, our own money, our own borders and our own immigration policy," he said in a statement. "If I become prime minister, there will be a referendum in the Netherlands on leaving the European Union as well. Let the Dutch people decide."

A survey conducted this week in the Netherlands by the Een Vandaag television channel showed the 54 percent of Dutch people in favor of a referendum.

Following the vote in Britain, leaders in and around Europe sought to soothe the fears of their own people after initial indications showed economic markets around the world tanking. Euro stocks and markets in Britain, France and Germany dropped by 7 to 10 percent shortly after opening, while U.S. stocks were down sharply at midday.

Acting Prime Minister of Spain Mariano Rajoy sent a message of "serenity and tranquility" to the Spanish people, and encouraged them not to promote uncertainty in the face of Britain's exit.

Putin welcomes pro-Brexit vote

Following a meeting Friday of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, Russian President Vladimir Putin told reporters that he thought British voters chose to leave the EU because "no one wants to feed and subsidize weaker economies, support other countries, entire peoples." He also said British voters were unhappy about a deterioration of the security situation against the backdrop of "powerful migration processes."

The Russian president also responded to comments made last week by Cameron, who said Putin would welcome a pro-Brexit vote, and then added he suspected that Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi would also welcome it.

"The statement by the British prime minister, Mr. Cameron, before the plebiscite, the referendum, in which he voiced the Russian position, has no basis in fact," Putin told reporters in Tashkent, adding that he thought the statement was "an improper attempt to influence public opinion."

Putin said, "No one has the right to assert something about Russia's position," adding, "This is nothing other than a manifestation of a low level of political culture."

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