Angela Merkel has called on campaigners in Britain’s EU referendum debate to moderate their language ahead of next week’s vote, as political leaders and officials across Europe paid tribute to the killed Labour MP Jo Cox.
The German chancellor, who described the attack on the pro-European West Yorkshire MP as “terrible” but declined to link it directly to the referendum, called for all involved to respect the beliefs and opinions of others.
“Otherwise, the radicalisation will become unstoppable,” she said. “Exaggerations, and radicalisation of part of the language, do not help foster an atmosphere of respect. We know how important it is to draw limits: in choice of speech, in choice of argument, and also in choice of disparaging argument.”
In an interview with the Guardian, the Austrian chancellor, Christian Kern, said the killing was “only further proof of how quickly violent words can turn into violent deeds. On social media, you see people falling into parallel worlds that we can no longer get them back out of.”
Kern said he had discussed the issue with both the French president, François Hollande, and Merkel, adding: “How do you get back these people who believe that all media and all journalists are lying to them?”
In France, Hollande expressed his “profound emotion” at the killing, adding that Cox’s family and friends had his “condolences, and compassion”.
The French prime minister, Manuel Valls, also tweeted his “deep sadness” for Cox and the British people, saying that through her “our democratic ideal has been targeted. Never accept it!”
The killing made the front pages of many European newspapers, with Belgium’s Le Soir headlined “Brexit debate turns to tragedy”, Spain’s El Mundo saying the Brexit campaign was “stained with blood”, and De Telegraaf in the Netherlands opting for “Murder in Brexit battle”.
Speaking at a press conference in Vienna, the IMF director, Christine Lagarde, said she had “always admired the United Kingdom for its openness to other nationalities and foreign cultures”, and that the killing should invite “a bit of reflection … about how a democratic debate should take place”.
The Dutch finance minister and president of the group of eurozone finance ministers, Jeroen Dijsselbloem, also said he hoped the people of the UK, “a beacon of peaceful politics, can make their democratic choices serenely and in safety next week”.
However, French and Austrian far-right leaders, also in Vienna for a meeting of populist and Eurosceptic parties, warned against speculation that Cox was killed because of her pro-EU, immigrant-friendly views.
Speaking at a meeting of rightwing and Eurosceptic parties under the motto “Patriotic spring”, Marine Le Pen, of France’s Front National, said it was “not very decent to use this dramatic event” for political motives while the reasons for the killing were unclear.
Appearing alongside her, Heinz-Christian Strache, the leader of Austria’s Freedom party, whose candidate, Norbert Hofer, narrowly lost May’s presidential election, insisted his party was “against all extremism”.
Reactions elsewhere were warmer. Ireland’s taoiseach, Enda Kenny, tweeted:
Alexis Tsipras, the Greek prime minister, said the incident was “shocking”, adding: “Hatred and nationalism are common enemies of our people.”
Matteo Renzi, the Italian prime minister, said the killing was “a horrible act of hatred, which casts a shadow on the hearts of all of us”. Hate, Renzi added, “will never prevail, neither in Britain nor elsewhere”. His Danish counterpart, Lars Løkke Rasmussen, said it was “a true shock … that a British politician was killed during the campaign”.
Mariano Rajoy, the acting Spanish prime minister, wrote to his British counterpart, David Cameron, to lament a “savage and brutal” attack. “Violence has no place in a democracy,” Rajoy wrote. “I beg you … to pass on to her relatives and loved ones and to all the British people our most heartfelt and sincere condolences.”
Sweden’s prime minister, Stefan Löfven, said the killing was “an attack on democracy” and a “heinous attack … against all of us who believe in a free society. My thoughts are with Jo Cox’s family and colleagues.”
Some commentators, including Bernd Riegert, of Germany’s Deutsche Welle, asked whether the referendum vote should not now be postponed, to allow time for “fear and hate to be removed from the campaigns. [People] need to take a step back and ask themselves: how could it get this far? Do we really want to keep going this way?”
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