LONDON, United Kingdom, Jun 28 – EU leaders attempted to rescue the European project and Prime Minister David Cameron sought to calm fears over Britain’s vote to leave the bloc as ratings agencies downgraded the country.
Britain has been pitched into uncertainty by Thursday’s referendum result, with Cameron announcing his resignation, the economy facing a string of shocks and Scotland making a fresh threat to break away.
US Secretary of State John Kerry, who flew to Brussels and London for talks on the crisis, said there was also “a genuine fear of contagion”.
While Cameron does not want to trigger the process to leave before he steps down by September, he is facing pressure from other EU leaders to hurry the process up ahead of a flashpoint Brussels summit Tuesday.
But at home, nearly four million people have now signed a petition calling for a second referendum on EU membership.
In his first appearance before a sombre House of Commons since the referendum, Cameron told lawmakers he wanted to retain the “strongest possible economic links with our European leaders”.
“Britain is leaving the European Union, but we must not turn our back on Europe or on the rest of the world,” he added.
He also announced the creation of a new government unit that will plan Britain’s withdrawal from the EU — a first for a European Union member state.
In one of the first big signs of the damage caused by the Brexit vote, Standard and Poor’s downgraded Britain’s cherished AAA credit rating the highest possible to AA due to “continued uncertainty” following the decision.
Fitch followed, downgrading the UK from AA+ to AA and slashing economic growth forecasts from 2 percent in 2017 and 2018 to 0.9 percent.
The pound fell to its lowest level for three decades against the dollar, while stock markets in the US and European continued to fall.
Conservative, Labour turmoil
Another source of uncertainty is who will replace Cameron as prime minister and leader of the Conservative party.
The leaders of the Conservative committee which runs the process recommended Monday that his replacement be installed by September 2 at the latest. Nominations for the post formally close on Thursday.
Leading Brexit campaigner and ex-mayor of London Boris Johnson and Home Secretary Theresa May, who wanted Britain to stay in the EU but is seen as a unifying candidate, are the current favourites.
Like Cameron, Johnson sought to emphasise continuity in a column for the Daily Telegraph newspaper.
“I cannot stress too much that Britain is part of Europe, and always will be,” he said.
He also attempted to reach out to the 48 percent of Britons who voted to stay in the EU, urging Brexit supporters to “build bridges” with pro-EU “neighbours, brothers and sisters”.
The main opposition Labour party could also be getting a new leader after a revolt against veteran socialist Jeremy Corbyn, who has been criticised for his lacklustre role in the campaign to keep Britain in Europe.
Two-thirds of his shadow cabinet team have quit and he faces a vote of no confidence.
“Go now,” read the front page of the Daily Mirror, a left-leaning newspaper.
However, around 2,000 of the young grassroots activists who voted Corbyn in last year gathered outside parliament to show their continued support for him, brandishing placards with slogans such as “Corbyn In, Tories Out”.
There will be a secret ballot of Labour MPs on a no-confidence motion on Corbyn, the result of which will be announced on Tuesday, but it would still be up to the broader ranks of party members whether he goes or not.
‘Don’t lose your heads’
Ahead of Tuesday’s summit, France’s President Francois Hollande urged Britain to “not waste time” in leaving the bloc, while Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi told his country’s Senate: “The last thing Europe needs is to start a year-long discussion on (the negotiation) procedures.”
Others have urged a slower approach.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel said it was understandable that Britain “needs a certain period of time to analyse the situation”.
Kerry said European leaders should take a measured approach.
“It is absolutely essential that nobody loses their head, nobody goes off half-cocked, people don’t start ginning up scatterbrain or revengeful premises,” he said on an earlier stop in Brussels.
Stand up against hate crimes
Britain’s historic decision to leave the 28-nation bloc has also fuelled fears of a break-up of the United Kingdom, with Scotland eyeing a new independence poll.
Cameron’s spokeswoman played down the announcement by Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon that a second independence referendum was now “on the table” despite a vote against secession in 2014.
“The last thing Scotland needs now is another divisive referendum,” she said.
Cameron also condemned a wave of xenophobic attacks which took place in Britain over the weekend, including on a Polish community centre in London following the vote, calling on the country to unite.
“We will not stand for hate crime or these kinds of attacks. They must be stamped out,” he said.