EU leaders meet on Brexit as UK election indicates a way out

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BRUSSELS (AP) – European Union leaders gathered Friday to discuss Britain’s departure from the bloc amid some relief that Prime Minister Boris Johnson has secured a parliamentary majority that should allow him to push the long-stalled Brexit divorce deal through parliament.

With or without an agreement, Britain is scheduled to leave on Jan. 31. It’s the first time that a country will have left the world’s biggest trading bloc. Though many EU leaders are relieved that the Brexit saga is finally coming to an end , more than three years after Britons voted to leave, just as many are saddened at the departure of such a heavyweight member state.

“I deeply regret that the United Kingdom, our friends, are leaving the European Union,” Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar told reporters in Brussels.

However, he conceded that “it’s always easier for us to be able to negotiate with a partner who has a strong personal mandate and can control a majority in their parliament.”

Luxembourg Prime Minister Xavier Bettel said: “I still regret the outcome of the referendum but I respect it. I’m happy that it will be finally now over with this situation where we are able to agree here but in London they are not able to agree. So, finished, this situation, and that’s good for all of us.”

When Britain voted to leave the EU in June 2016, there were fears that it could lead to other departures. However, those fears have dissipated as the process has been so politically divisive – two U.K. elections were held over it – and expensive.

Though the pathway to Britain’s departure by Jan. 31 is reasonably clear, the future relationship between the country and the EU is not. Discussions on that can only begin after Britain formally leaves. The EU has already said that its main Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier will lead those discussions.

After congratulating Johnson on his victory, new EU Council President Charles Michel said that “we expect as soon as possible the vote by the British parliament on the withdrawal agreement.”

“We are ready,” he told reporters as he arrived to chair the meeting of Britain’s 27 EU partner countries. “The European Union will negotiate in order to have close cooperation in the future with the U.K.”

Ultimately, the Brexit divorce negotiations may yet prove to be the easy part. If Britain does leave at the end of next month, it will have less than a year to negotiate a new trade agreement with its partners and get it endorsed in all their parliaments. Most trade pacts take several years to agree.

First thing though, the EU member countries will have to agree on a new negotiating mandate for Barnier.

“We are all set,” said new European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, whose powerful executive arm negotiates trade deals on behalf of EU member countries. The commission also supervised the Brexit talks.

“We have the structures internally. We are ready to negotiate whatever is necessary,” she said.

Asked whether it is possible to seal a trade deal in under a year, Michel said: “it is not my intention to predict based on the experience of the past.”

Varadkar said that “striking a trade deal by the end of 2020 is tremendously ambitious, but we’re determined to try.”

European Council President Charles Michel, center, walks to a media conference during an EU summit in Brussels, Friday, Dec. 13, 2019. European Union leaders gathered for their year-end summit and discussed climate change funding, the departure of the UK from the bloc and their next 7-year budget. (AP Photo/Virginia Mayo)
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