Brussels-based journalist Sarah Collins discusses the atmosphere in the home of the European Union
Brussels was left reeling after the UK’s shock decision to quit the EU, with some European officials in tears, and others getting hate calls from triumphant nationalists saluting the vote.
“This was not our referendum, but we have to deal with the consequences,” said one senior EU official, who did not want to be named.
Many of the thousands of British officials working for EU institutions in Brussels, Luxembourg and Strasbourg expressed devastation at the news, which throws their legal status into limbo.
“This is not what anyone envisaged or wanted, nobody saw it coming,” said Irish MEP Marian Harkin. “It is a shocking thing to have happened, from the UK’s perspective, from our perspective and for the EU globally.”
Irish passport applications have already started to pick up, according to one official, as British citizens attempt to retain their EU links.
EU leaders pleaded for calm after the result was confirmed, which saw 51.9 percent of Brits vote to quit the bloc after 43 years of membership.
In a joint statement with the Dutch prime minister, who holds the six monthly EU’s rotating presidency, the heads of the three EU institutions said they “regret this decision but respect it”.
Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, said he was “very sad” at the outcome.
Donald Tusk, the former Polish premier who chairs the quarterly EU summits, said it was a “serious and dramatic” moment, but pledged not to let it destroy the EU. “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” he told reporters.
What follows will be a long, drawn-out and messy divorce, with David Cameron refusing to pull the official exit trigger until the UK parliament has its say and the Conservatives have chosen a new leader, which could take months.
Until a withdrawal deal is done - which can two years or more - nothing will change, and Britain will remain an EU member, subject to the same laws as everyone else.
Irish officials in Brussels say they will lose a close ally when Britain goes, especially on financial and tax matters, while the EU will lose an important buffer zone against Germany and France.
“We’ll miss them, that balance is gone,” said Ms Harkin, an Independent MEP. “We had a common understanding about lots of things, even when we didn’t agree on some of the changes.”
There is also widespread fear in Brussels about a domino effect from a British exit, or Brexit, with far-right groups in the Netherlands and France welcoming the result, Scotland’s leader calling for a rerun of the independence referendum and Sinn Fein mooting a united Ireland poll.
“Unless this is handled correctly, it could lead to the disintegration of Europe over time,” said Fine Gael MEP Brian Hayes. “We have to take stock of what’s happened and see if we can put this project back on track.”
For now, the EU is playing a waiting game until the UK makes a move, with the European Central Bank on standby to pump cash into the banking sector as financial markets tumbled on Friday.
“We now expect the United Kingdom government to give effect to this decision of the British people as soon as possible, however painful that process may be,” Mr Juncker said.
“Any delay would unnecessarily prolong uncertainty.”
EU leaders will meet in Brussels on Tuesday to discuss the fallout.
Sarah Collins is a Brussels-based freelance reporter who has written for several Irish, British and international publications.