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European leaders scramble to calm fears of EU implosion after Brexit

German and French leaders call British exit a blow and a 'grave test', as right-wing parties in Europe agitate for similar referendums
Angela Merkel addresses German media after the British exit (AFP)

European leaders on Friday scrambled to calm fears of the implosion of the European Union after the British voted to leave, with the leaders of Germany and France calling the exit a "blow" and a "grave test" for bloc.

The UK on Friday voted 52 percent to 48 percent to leave the EU, the end result of months of bitter arguments from Remain and Leave campaigns that have split the country virtually down the middle.

The decision sent markets into turmoil and warnings of economic crises, signalled the end of David Cameron's reign as prime minister and brought a no-confidence challenge to Jeremy Corbyn from rebels within his Labour party.

On the continent, prominent European leaders spoke of their dismay at the result, but implored European Union states to remain firm in tumultuous times.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel warned member states against drawing hasty conclusions about Britain's decision to quit, but said the result was a blow to all.

"We take note of the British people's decision with regret. There is no doubt that this is a blow to Europe and to the European unification process," she said.

But "what the consequences of this would be... would depend on whether we - the other 27 member states of the EU - prove to be willing and able to not draw quick and simple conclusions".

Member states should "calmly and prudently analyse and evaluate the situation, before making the right decisions together," said Merkel. "Never forget that the idea of European unity was an idea of peace."

French President Francois Hollande said Britain's vote was a "grave test for Europe" in view of the economic and financial consequences.

"Europe... must show solidity and strength in its response to the economic and financial risks," Hollande said.

"It always takes less time to destroy than to build... The choice is theirs, and we must respect it."

European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker on Friday denied that Britain's shock vote to leave the EU was the start of a process of the bloc's disintegration.

However the British result led to calls from politicians within Europe for similar referendums. 

French far-right leader Marine Le Pen hailed Britain's decision. "Victory for Freedom! As I have been asking for years, we must now have the same referendum in France and EU countries," the National Front (FN) leader tweeted.

The left wing French presidential candidate Jean Luc Melenchon said the lesson to the EU was "either we change it or we leave".

In the Netherlands, anti-immigrant MP Geert Wilders also congratulated Britons on their "independence day".

"The Dutch people deserve a referendum as well. The Party for Freedom consequently demands a referendum on Nexit, a Dutch EU exit," Wilders said in a statement.

Matteo Salvini, Italy's most prominent far-right politician, also hailed the Brexit vote as an example his country should follow.

"Cheers to the bravery of free citizens," the leader of the Northern League wrote on Twitter. "Heart, head and pride beat lies, threats and blackmail. THANKS UK, now it is our turn #Brexit".

In Denmark the populist Danish People's Party (DPP), which has been calling for a renegotiation of its accords with the EU, hailed what it called a "courageous" decision by the British. But it urged everyone to "keep their heads" and said it wanted to see what happened next.

Sweden's small Left Party called for the country's government to renegotiate the terms of its adhesion to the EU.

Heinz-Christian Strache, leader of the Freedom Party of Austria, demanded that European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker should resign "out of decency and out of respect for a better future for Europe".

And the leader of Germany's right-wing AfD, Frauke Petry, said in a Facebook post the British exit was a warning that "if the EU does not abandon its quasi-socialist experiment of ever greater integration then the European people will follow the Brits and take back their sovereignty".

Vladimir Putin, Russia's president, said his country had never "interferred, never expressed our opinion on the matter".

"Of course we closely followed what is happening but did not in any way influence the process and didn't even try to."

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