After the shock of Brexit, reality has begun to sink in among European leaders. They are confronted with a historical breaking point and the need for change, says Barbara Wesel.
There was more melancholy than anger among the European heads of government as they said goodbye to David Cameron. And the British prime minister found an almost dignified exit from the European stage even though he has created this crisis through his own weakness and miscalculations. The uncertainty over the timing and conditions for Britain to leave the Union will carry on for a while, until a new government in London has to face the inevitable task and start divorce proceedings.
No way back
Some are still hoping the referendum and its result could be made to disappear. Could not the EU somehow encourage Britain to forget this nasty business and simply avoid invoking Article 50 of the European Treaty? Could they not - as has happened before - think again and have a second referendum? It was the German chancellor who poured cold water on this type of wishful thinking. Always down to earth and practical, Angela Merkel demanded that everyone face reality.
She also called this meeting a sad occasion, an emotion that was shared by many in Brussels. Some vented their frustration in a more open manner. But, as politicians, they could not waste their time neither with anger nor with sadness, Merkel concluded.
A chance for a rerun of the referendum could, in any case, only come from within Britain. Only the British people themselves can create the momentum to find a political way out. But this seems improbable and so far unlikely.
After the shock and hand-wringing about the split from Britain, European governments now need to look at themselves. The most important task is to reconnect with their citizens and make the EU produce less fine print and more tangible results. It should refocus policymaking less on technical issues and markets and more on people's concrete needs. And where Europe does create practical benefits - and they are numerous - these need to be explained better.
What we don't need at this point are ideological discussions about more or less Europe, about competences and national interests. If the political leaders of the remaining 27 member states don't pull together at this point, their and our cause is lost.
Change Europe's image
It has long been "worst practice" in Europe to play a constant double game. When in Brussels, the prime ministers and presidents make their deals. And when they come home they point their fingers at the EU and declare any concession they made to be the fault of the supposedly undemocratic institutions back there. Vilifying Europe on the national stage is the name of the game. British governments especially were masters of this dark art. After some decades, citizens began to believe in this creation of the EU as a bureaucratic monster and turned their backs.
Europe's leaders should face up to their own collusion in creating this crisis that is threatening the essence and future of the EU. Rather radical change is needed and above all: If they believe that this Union is the most important political creation of our lifetimes, they should begin to fight for it.