BRUSSELS • A stunned European Union yesterday urged Britain to leave as "soon as possible" amid fears the devastating blow to European unity could spark a chain reaction of further referendums.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande led calls for the EU to reform in order to survive a traumatic divorce with Britain following its vote to leave.
In a sign that the bloc wants to move on swiftly, EU chiefs told Britain in a strongly worded joint statement to "give effect to this decision of the British people as soon as possible, however painful that process may be".
The uncompromising stance came after Prime Minister David Cameron said he would resign and leave the negotiations for Britain's departure from the 28-nation club to a successor who will be named by October.
Worried European leaders will hold a series of crisis talks in the coming days, with Dr Merkel saying she would host the leaders of France and Italy along with EU President Donald Tusk in Berlin on Monday to try to chart a reform plan.
With global markets in turmoil, she said it was important to "not draw quick and simple conclusions from the referendum in Great Britain, which would only further divide Europe".
Mr Hollande warned that Brexit could further the support for far-right elements in the EU while European Parliament President Martin Schulz said he was speaking to Dr Merkel to avoid a "chain reaction" of eurosceptic success across Europe, adding that it would "absolutely not happen".
In similar vein, Mr Tusk, the EU chief and a former Polish premier, insisted that the bloc was "determined to keep our unity at 27" and said the remaining leaders would meet separately without Mr Cameron on the sidelines of a summit of the full 28 member states in Brussels next week.
Quitting the EU could cost Britain access to the EU's trade barrier-free single market.
The EU, on its part, will be economically and politically damaged, facing the departure of a member with its biggest financial centre, a UN Security Council veto, a powerful army and nuclear weapons. In one go, the bloc will lose around a sixth of its economic output.
"It's an explosive shock. At stake is the break-up pure and simple of the union," French Prime Minister Manuel Valls said.
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS