brexit newspaper out.jpg
Photograph: EPA/ANDY RAIN

Brussels/Luxembourg (dpa) - Britain should launch its EU exit negotiations as soon as possible to avoid unnecessary uncertainty, top officials and ministers in the bloc said Friday, following the country's vote in favour of leaving the European Union.

British Prime Minister David Cameron had indicated just hours earlier that London is unlikely to trigger the EU treaty article which will start the exit negotiations until October.

But four top EU officials called in a joint statement for London to "give effect to this decision of the British people as soon as possible, however painful that process may be."

Almost 52 per cent of British voters opted for leaving the EU in a referendum on Thursday, putting the country on course to become the first to depart the 28-member bloc.

"Any delay would unnecessarily prolong uncertainty," EU President Donald Tusk, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, European Parliament President Martin Schulz and Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte - whose country currently holds the EU's presidency, said in the statement.

That sentiment was also expressed by foreign ministers who gathered in Luxembourg on Friday afternoon to draw the first conclusion from the referendum and prepare a discussion by EU leaders next week.

"There is urgency, there is no time to lose. Any period of uncertainty would be harmful," French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault said, adding that the "cohesion and stability" of Europe and Britain are at stake.

"I do believe that the politicians in Britain who voted for Leave need to take on the responsibility now. They got the result they wanted, now they have to live up to it," Danish Foreign Minister Kristian Jensen added.

"I'm convinced that we need to hurry up," Czech Foreign Minister Lubomir Zaoralek said, noting that the bloc has other pressing issues to deal with, such as its migration crisis.

Latvian Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkevics also pointed to the jitters on financial markets and the fact that many Europeans living in Britain and Britons living in the EU are waiting to learn their fate.

"The sooner we start with negotiations, the better," he said.

But others were less worried about the prospect of waiting months for the talks to start.

"You cannot take expeditiously decisions of this nature. It needs time," Cypriot Foreign Minister Ioannis Kasoulides said. "It's going to be a long process anyhow."

German Chancellor Angela Merkel also warned against making "fast and easy decisions, which would only serve to further divide Europe."

Many EU leaders, while expressing disappointment about the outcome of the referendum, also stressed the need to learn lessons and respond to demands of European citizens - not least to avoid a domino effect of further exit votes.

"The British referendum shall be either an alarm awakening the sleepwalker heading towards the cliff or the beginning of a very dangerous and slippery course for our peoples," Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras said. "We need an immediate change of course."

"We have to change [the EU] to make it more human and more just. But Europe is our home, it is our future," Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi wrote on Twitter and Facebook.

Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Lofven called the vote a "wake-up call for Europe," while Tusk said that the bloc's leaders should "start a wider reflection on the future of our union."

"Brexit: respect, regret, re-engage," Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite tweeted.

"To earn the trust of citizens, the EU has to focus on essential questions and to be able to carry out reforms," Finnish Prime Minister Juha Sipila said in a statement.

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