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Immigration fears caused Brexit vote, David Cameron tells Brussels

Published 28/06/2016

David Cameron will attend a working dinner devoted to the consequences of the referendum vote
David Cameron will attend a working dinner devoted to the consequences of the referendum vote

David Cameron has stepped off the European stage with an admission that public fears over immigration cost him last week's referendum and his job.

A clearly emotional Prime Minister said that there was "sadness and regret" among the 28 leaders around the table at the European Council that the UK was leaving the EU after 43 years, coupled with an acceptance that the decision of voters must be respected.

And he explained how he used his final appearance at the Brussels gathering to warn fellow leaders that intransigence over freedom of movement could scupper any chance of a UK-EU trade deal with the new prime minister who takes over from him in September.

Getting the right solution on immigration would be a "a major test" for the next PM - widely tipped to be Boris Johnson.

Mr Cameron was speaking after German chancellor Angela Merkel warned the UK must accept free movement if it wanted to retain access to the single market after withdrawal, as some non-members like Norway did.

Assuring the German parliament that she would not allow the UK to "cherry-pick" favoured elements of the EU package, she said: "If you wish to have free access to the single market then you have to accept the fundamental European rights as well as obligations that come from it. This is as true for Great Britain as for anybody else."

Over dinner with fellow leaders in Brussels at his final European Council summit as Prime Minister, Mr Cameron set out his assessment of the reasons behind Thursday's shock 52%-48% referendum vote for Brexit.

And he told reporters later: "I think people recognised the strength of the economic case for staying, but there was a very great concern about the movement of people and immigration, and I think that is coupled with a concern about the issues of sovereignty and the absence of control there has been.

"I think we need to think about that, Europe need to think about that and I think that is going to be one of the major tests for the next prime minister.

"It's a difficult challenge because the European Union sees the single market as one of goods, services, capital and people. These things go together, where in Britain we see them as separate options.

"It's a huge challenge to get that right for the future, a challenge for Europe, a challenge for Britain. I certainly explained what I thought the debate had been about in the UK."

Asked if he now regretted calling the historic referendum, a sombre-faced Mr Cameron said: "It's a sad night for me - I didn't want to be in this position. I wanted Britain to stay in a reformed European Union.

"At the end of the day I'm a democrat. I fought very hard for what I believed in. I didn't stand back. I threw myself in head, heart and soul to keep Britain in the European Union and I didn't succeed.

"And in politics you have to recognise that you fight, and when you win you carry on the programme, and when you lose sometimes you have to say I've lost that argument, I've lost that debate, and it's right to hand over to someone else who can take the country forward.

"Now of course I'm sad about that but I'm more concerned about Britain getting its relationship right with Europe.

"That is a far bigger thing than whether I'm Prime Minister for six years or seven years or what have you."

A government source said Mr Cameron's m essage to EU leaders was that if they wanted a close economic relationship with the UK after Brexit, they cannot "shy away" from the migration issue.

The PM told the House of Commons on Monday that there was "a very strong case" for trying to remain in the single market after Brexit. And Chancellor George Osborne backed his position, telling a business conference in London that Britain should seek "the closest possible ties" with its former EU partners on trade.

Downing Street said Mr Cameron was clear with EU leaders that decisions on withdrawal negotiations would be for his successor to take. He is not understood to have set out any blueprint for the future shape of the UK's relations with Europe.

Reform of the movement principle was a bridge too far in Mr Cameron's pre-referendum renegotiation of the terms of British membership, when he secured only changes to migrant welfare rules rather than the "emergency brake" on immigration which had been mooted.

The Brexit vote has forced freedom of movement to the top of the agenda across Europe, with populist parties in several countries seeking to follow Ukip in making it a central plank of demands to leave the EU. Meanwhile, Brussels remains embroiled in long-running discussions with Switzerland over the non-member's reluctance to sign up to the principle.

The leader of the French National Front, Marine le Pen, said she would call a referendum if she won next year's presidential election, telling BBC Two's Newsnight the Brexit vote was "the most important moment since the fall of the Berlin Wall".

Ms Le Pen commended "the courage of the British people who didn't allow themselves to be intimidated by the threats, blackmail, and lies of the European elites".

Mr Cameron characterised the six-hour meeting as "constructive, postive and calm", as leaders recognised that Britain and Europe should seek "the closest possible relations" post-Brexit.

While several EU leaders repeated calls for talks on withdrawal to start immediately, there were signs that some are beginning to accept that the process must await the selection of a new PM, with the Netherlands' Mark Rutte saying: "It would be unwise to force a rapid departure. It would be prudent to give Britain time."

In a measure of the scale of the convulsion which EU leaders feel the referendum has sent through British society, Mr Rutte said England had collapsed "politically, monetarily, constitutionally and economically".

European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker said Brussels officials had been ordered not to enter into any "secret negotiations" with the UK. And he made clear that Britain would not be allowed to dictate the terms of its new relationship with Europe, saying: "It is we who must decide what happens, not just those who wish to leave."

Downing Street characterised talks between Mr Cameron and Mr Juncker ahead of the summit as "amicable and constructive".

But the president had a less friendly exchange with Nigel Farage in the European Parliament chamber, asking the Ukip MEP: "Why are you even here?"

The pair were later seen to make up with a hug, with the tactile commission president even appearing to kiss the Ukip leader on the ear.

In highly charged exchanges, Mr Farage was booed and barracked as he told MEPs they had laughed at his demand for withdrawal when he first arrived in Brussels 17 years ago, adding: "You're not laughing now."

Mr Juncker told MEPs of his sadness over the Brexit vote, telling them: "The British vote has cut off one of our wings, as it were, but we're still flying."

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