[BRUSSELS] European Union leaders said there could be no turning back for the UK after Prime Minister David Cameron used his last EU summit to express disappointment at his failure to win the referendum he called on Britain's membership.
"As of this evening, I see no way back from the Brexit vote," German Chancellor Angela Merkel told reporters after the meeting in Brussels on Tuesday. "This is no time for wishful thinking, but rather to grasp reality."
Fellow government chiefs lined up to warn Mr Cameron that delaying the period before the UK formally activates the EU's exit mechanism will prevent the start of negotiations over any future relationship. The prime minister repeated the message he'd given back home: despite the uncertainty it's causing, that will be the job for his successor.
During a debrief over dinner, Mr Cameron told his 27 counterparts that their refusal to give him a deal that reduced immigration to the UK had cost him the referendum and his job, according to a British government official. He warned them that if they want a close economic relationship with the UK in the future, they will have to shift ground and find a way to tackle immigration, the official said.
Mr Cameron was visibly shaken after the dinner, at which he said fellow leaders had told him how much Britain's membership of the EU meant to their countries. Asked he if regretted holding the referendum, he said he was "sorry" he'd lost, but that the pressure to hold it had been too great.
"I fought very hard for what I believed in," Mr Cameron told reporters. "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."
As well as dashing lingering hopes among some in the UK that the referendum result can be somehow overturned, leaders rebutted claims from pro-Brexit campaigners about the nation's future relationship with the bloc. Several government chiefs insisted the UK cannot expect generous treatment from the EU once it's no longer a member.
"The UK won't be able to access the single market without applying the rules of freedom of movement," French President Francois Hollande said. "This isn't to punish the British people," but following the referendum "they will have to face the consequences for some time."
With Mr Cameron the most high-ranking of a raft of political victims of the referendum in Britain, Mr Hollande signaled that the pros and cons of EU membership are also likely to influence the outcome of the French presidential elections next year.
Leaders expressed a growing frustration across Europe that the June 23 referendum has left a power vacuum in the UK and the whole EU in a state of limbo. European Central Bank President Mario Draghi told the closed-door session that growth in the euro area could decline by as much as 0.5 percentage point for the next three years cumulatively, according to a European official with knowledge of the meeting.
While in Brussels, Mr Cameron left behind a deepening political crisis at home with candidates from both his Conservatives and the Labour opposition challenging for the leadership of their respective parties, exacerbating the sense of a country adrift.
Attention among the Tories turned to which candidate might be the one to stop Boris Johnson from taking over in Downing Street, while Labour's Jeremy Corbyn lost a confidence vote but pledged to carry on as leader anyway.
Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon will meet European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker on Wednesday afternoon to discuss regional policy, the Wall Street Journal reported, citing an unidentified senior EU official.
Ms Sturgeon said on Saturday that her government had started on legislation for a new referendum on Scottish independence - a vote that would risk a break up of the UK.
Mr Cameron has said a decision to start the EU withdrawal process is for his successor to make, yet his counterparts have no other interlocutor as long as there's no successor in place. The Conservatives aim to elect a new party leader by early September.
Mr Juncker said the EU would put a time limit on the UK's triggering of the exit mechanism - even though legally there is no obligation on Britain to do it at all.
"If someone from the Remain camp will become British prime minister, this has to be done in two weeks after his appointment," Mr Juncker told reporters as the meeting ended. "If the next British PM is coming from the Leave campaign, it should be done the day after his appointment."
EU President Donald Tusk, who co-ordinates summits, said the 27 leaders minus Cameron would meanwhile meet Wednesday to undertake "deeper reflection" on a "new impulse for Europe." He said he plans to call another meeting of the 27 in September.