brexit newspaper out.jpg
Photograph: EPA/ANDY RAIN

The first eight months of World War II are known as the 'phoney war' because Britain and its Western allies engaged in no real fighting with Nazi Germany.

Similarly, Britain's decision to exit from the European Union - arguably one of the most momentous events in the country's history since the war against Hitler was won in 1945 - may not result in concrete developments for a while.

Parties in the 'phoney divorce' initiated by the June 23 Brexit referendum have their hands tied until London actually decides to trigger Article 50 of the EU Treaty, which opens a two-year window to reach an exit agreement.

British Prime Minister David Cameron said not only would he leave that task to his successor, who should be installed in September, but also that that person would need to study the dossier before making a move.

"We shouldn't take too much time but we should take some time to get it right. And triggering Article 50 will work better if both sides know what they are trying to achieve in the negotiation that's about to begin," Cameron said Tuesday, after possibly his last EU summit.

From the EU side, there was frustration at the impasse, but also understanding that as a captain about to leave the ship, Cameron does not have the political authority to steer his country's path out of the bloc.

In Brussels, Britain's lame-duck leader felt unable even to deal with a relatively minor issue: His country's six-month EU presidency in the second half of 2017 which, given its half-out status, probably needs to be passed over to another nation.

Cameron, who wanted Britain to stay in the EU, said immigration was the main reason why he lost the referendum battle, and said he hoped that as a non-member, his country could establish as close as possible relations with its ex-partners.

That prompted warnings that Britain could not cherry-pick what it likes about EU membership - such as access to its single market - and forfeit less palatable aspects - such as EU budget contributions or the obligation to keep its doors open to European workers.

"It is the four freedoms, or none," French President Francois Hollande said after Tuesday's talks, referring to the EU's cherished freedom for goods, services, people and capital to move across the bloc.

EU officials were also scathing about the apparent cluelessness of the British leave camp, led by Cameron's main rival within the Conservative Party, Boris Johnson, and UK Independence Party leader Nigel Farage.

European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said they appear "totally unable to tell us what they want," while EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said London still had to clarify whether it "will or will not" embark on exit negotiations.

A potential challenger for Cameron's succession, Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt, proposed Monday a second referendum on the terms of Britain's EU departure, which could further complicate any attempt at a clean break.

Meanwhile, an online petition calling for a new EU membership poll has garnered more than 4 million signatures, while the Twitter hashtag #Bregret began trending soon after the final results were out.

But the leader of the EU's most powerful nation and its informal powerbroker, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, dismissed any so-called 'Regrexit' scenarios. "This is not the hour for wishful thinking," she said.

With typical Teutonic pragmatism, she warned against fantasizing that Britain's troubled 43-year-old marriage with the rest of Europe could somehow be rescued.

"We are politicians, our job is not to dwell on grief for too long, ... but we must look at reality and draw the necessary consequences," she said.

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