BELGIUM: EU leaders have expressed cautious confidence that Boris Johnson will pivot to back a close economic relationship with the bloc and called for swift ratification of the withdrawal agreement after the prime minister’s election triumph.
The size of Johnson’s majority was welcomed in Brussels, where the 27 heads of state and government have gathered for a two-day summit.
Charles Michel, the European council president, said he expected the withdrawal agreement to be passed through parliament within weeks to allow the UK to leave with a deal in 49 days’ time.
“We expect as soon as possible a vote by the British parliament on the withdrawal agreement,”Michel said. “It is important to have the clarity as soon as possible. We are ready. The EU will negotiate to ensure to have a close cooperation in the future with the UK.”
Earlier, the European commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, said she would “immediately listen to the prime minister, the new prime minister, to be reassured what the pathway is”.
EU leaders believe the Conservative majority will give Johnson free rein to decide his negotiating objectives and compromise in the talks where necessary.
Once the UK parliament has ratified the withdrawal agreement, the European parliament will give its consent in January before the UK’s departure at the end of the month.
EU leaders are waiting to see what incarnation of the prime minister will emerge now he is secure in Downing Street.
Johnson had initially approached the negotiations on the withdrawal agreement with bullish, uncompromising talk, but swiftly broke his red lines to concede to a customs border in the Irish Sea between Northern Ireland and Great Britain.
The Irish taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, hinted at private assurances from Johnson that he would sign up to EU standards in order to secure a trade deal.
“I’d like that to ensure we still have tariff-free and quota-free trade between Britain and the EU and to have a set of minimum standards so that nobody feels that there’s unfair competition or anyone’s trying to undercut them when it comes to labour rights, environmental protection and issues like that,” he said. “And [from] my conversations with Mr Johnson, I think he’s probably in a similar space, so it’s a case of now getting on with it.
“It’s a case of now getting on with it and I think the prospect is there to develop a new future economic partnership between the EU and UK, and one that’s going to be mighty and good for all of us.
EU leaders are expected to issue a communique later on Friday saying “the future relationship will have to be based on a balance of rights and obligations and ensure a level playing field”.
Brussels wants the British government to sign up to EU environment, tax, work and social standards as it seeks “to establish as close as possible a future relationship with the UK”, according to a leaked draft of the document.
There is a debate among the EU27 and with the European commission on what might be possible to negotiate between 31 January, when the UK is expected to leave, and the end of the transition period 11 months later.
Johnson has said he will not extend the transition period, as would be permissible under the terms of the withdrawal agreement, beyond the end of 2020.
The EU’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, who has been confirmed in his post, has said that as a result, there is insufficient time to complete negotiations on a comprehensive deal and trade will need to be prioritised, leaving other issues such as cooperation on services and transport for later.
The Dutch prime minister, Mark Rutte, conceded at the summit that it would be “quite a challenge given the short time available” to find agreement even on trade by the end of next year. “We have to discuss the precise approach to these negotiations,” he said.
Belgium’s prime minister, Sophie Wilmès, said: “We have to give a clear mandate to Michel Barnier to negotiate what our relationship will be.”
The Danish prime minister, Mette Frederiksen, said her government would be pushing hard to maintain access to UK waters for Denmark’s fishing industry. “When it comes to Brexit, fishing is particularly important for Denmark, because it is a profession that depends on good cooperation with the countries that share the same fishing area. So there is no doubt that fishing really matters,” she said.
Satisfaction that there will now be clarity from the UK over the next steps has, however, been tempered by sadness at the its imminent departure.
The Czech prime minister, Andrej Babiš, said: “It is obviously a giant success for Boris Johnson. He is a charismatic leader. He won and now they will leave, unfortunately. That is bad news for Europe.”