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EU leaders acknowledge Brexit now inevitable

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EU leaders said Friday they will now work to ensure close cooperation with the United Kingdom after it leaves the EU.

After Boris Johnson won a large majority in Thursday’s election, it looks now all but certain the U.K. will leave the European Union on January 31 — a fact conceded by EU leaders as thoughts immediately turned to fresh negotiations on Britain’s future relationship with the bloc.

“We expect as soon as possible a vote by the British parliament on the Withdrawal Agreement,” European Council President Charles Michel said on arriving at a summit of EU leaders in Brussels. “The EU will negotiate to ensure to have a close cooperation in the future with the U.K.,” he added, noting that “the integrity of the Single Market is a very important issue for us.”

Brexit will happen at the end of next month, Belgium Prime Minister Sophie Wilmès told reporters. “Of course there is a deadline. The 31st of January, it exists, and we shall see what the future will say,” she said.

She added that the EU wants a good trade relationship with the U.K. and that Europeans “speak with one voice, one voice for Europe.” For that reason “we have to give a clear mandate to [chief Brexit negotiator] Michel Barnier to negotiate what our relationship will be,” she said.

EU27 leaders will discuss Brexit at the end of Friday’s meeting — specifically the mandate for the next steps.

Not all leaders were gracious in their response, with Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babiš describing Johnson’s election victory, and the U.K.’s imminent departure, as “bad news for Europe.”

“It is obviously a giant success for Boris Johnson. He is a charismatic leader,” Babiš said on his way into the summit. “He won and now they will leave, unfortunately. That is bad news for Europe.”

Luxembourg’s Prime Minister Xavier Bettel said: “I hope that Boris Johnson ‘delivers’ as he said himself during his campaign.”

“The excuse that there is no clear majority in London doesn’t last anymore,” he added, cautioning “it’s not going to be simple, but it was never simple” to put the Withdrawal Agreement in motion.

“This continuity factor is very important to bring optimal results home,” said Italy’s Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte Daina Le Lardic/Belga Mag for AFP via Getty Images

EU27 leaders will discuss Brexit at the end of Friday’s meeting — specifically the mandate for the next steps. Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte earlier cautioned that negotiating a free-trade agreement by the end of 2020 will be “quite a challenge given the short time available.” Johnson has ruled out asking for an extension to the stand-still transition period that is due to follow the U.K.’s EU exit — leaving negotiators a short timeline until December 2020 to reach a trade deal.

“We have to discuss the precise approach to these negotiations,” Rutte said, while refusing to comment on whether the Netherlands would back a German proposal for a less ambitious “Step 1” trade agreement that could be upgraded at a later stage.

The EU already appointed Frenchman Barnier to head up a “U.K. Task Force,” under the new European Commission. Italy’s Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte said Friday he is happy that Barnier will be in charge of the next phase of talks with London: “This continuity factor is very important to bring optimal results home,” he said.

“Our task now is to prepare the negotiating framework for the future relations,” Croatian Prime Minister Andrej Plenković said Friday, adding, “we need to pick up areas in which we can both be certain that we can complete the negotiations within the period of 11 months ahead of us.”

Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen told reporters her country would prioritize the issue of access to U.K. fishing waters in the talks.

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