EU leaders debate Brexit as UK election indicates a way out

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Belgium Europe Brexit

European Central Bank President Christine Lagarde, center, speaks with Luxembourg's Prime Minister Xavier Bettel, left, and French President Emmanuel Macron, right, during a round table meeting at an EU summit in Brussels, Friday, Dec. 13, 2019. European Union leaders are gathering Friday to discuss Britain's departure from the bloc amid some relief that Prime Minister Boris Johnson has secured an election majority that should allow him to push the Brexit deal through parliament. (AP Photo/Olivier Matthys)

BRUSSELS (AP) — European Union leaders on Friday debated 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 leave 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.

The sense of relief was evident among European business groups too, though it was tinged with some regret. The uncertainty over Britain's future was a concern among businesses and some have shifted operations out of the U.K. There are still questions over the future relationship after Brexit and whether tariff-free trade between the U.K. and the EU will continue after a standstill transition period expires at the end of 2020.

“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."

Joachim Lang, chief executive of the Federation of German Industries, said Friday that no German company wants Brexit but “our companies are breathing a sigh of relief that there is finally a mandate to accept the withdrawal agreement.”

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.”

Fabian Zuleeg, Chief Executive at the European Policy Center think-tank said that for the EU the election outcome is “positive" as it means the first stage of Brexit can be concluded.

“There will not be a re-negotiation, there will not be a further delay,” he said. “Of course the big question is what comes after that.”

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."

The Association of German Chambers of Commerce and Industry said that Britain has slipped from Germany’s No. 5 trading partner to No. 7 since it voted to leave the EU in 2016. Its chairman, Eric Schweitzer, said German companies in Britain are “restrained in their investment and employment plans” because of uncertainty over the future.

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Angela Charlton and Daniela Berretta in Brussels, and Geir Moulson in Berlin contributed to this report.