EU views UK result with relief, reluctance

European Council President Charles Michel says the EU is ready to negotiate a free-trade agreement.
European Council President Charles Michel says the EU is ready to negotiate a free-trade agreement.

EU leaders have welcomed Prime Minister Boris Johnson's election triumph as a chance to put three years of Brexit frustration behind them but the Czech premier spoke for many in the bloc when he said Brexit was "bad news for Europe".

Leaders say they now want a quick divorce and to move on to talks on a free-trade accord with the EU, even if they are likely to be difficult.

"I'm relieved for my country," Ireland's Prime Minister Leo Varadkar said at an EU summit on Friday.

A so-called orderly Brexit with a transition period is crucial for investors and businesses who fear a "no-deal" departure would disrupt trade and financial markets.

"We expect a vote on the withdrawal agreement as soon as possible," European Council President Charles Michel told reporters, referring to the deal that Johnson and the EU struck setting the terms of Britain's exit on Jan. 31, 2020.

"It's important to have clarity as soon as possible," Michel said.

Leaders from Italy to the Netherlands echoed that sentiment, with Luxembourg's Prime Minister Xavier Bettel saying: "Boris won the election by telling everyone he wants to deliver, so now it's time to deliver."

Senior German conservative lawmaker Norbert Roettgen, an ally of Chancellor Angela Merkel, said on Twitter that now the size of Johnson's victory was clear "Brexit has become inevitable".

EU leaders, like many British voters, have tired of stop-start Brexit negotiations and the three extensions to Britain's departure date they have granted, although all deeply lamented the British decision to leave.

"It is obviously a giant success for Boris Johnson. He is a charismatic leader," Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis said.

"He won and now they will leave, unfortunately. That is bad news for Europe," he said.

Leaders said the EU was ready to negotiate a free-trade agreement but called on London to work in good faith, underlining EU fears Britain might try to reinvent itself as a low-regulation rival.

"#EU is ready for the next phase. We will negotiate a future trade deal which ensures a true level playing field," Michel tweeted.

Varadkar cautioned there would be "no undercuts on labour rights" and clinching a trade deal by the end of 2020 was "enormously ambitious."

EU trade pacts with countries such as South Korea, Japan and Canada have taken between five and nine years to complete, while EU officials warn Johnson's plan to diverge from the EU, rather than mirror EU rules, could make negotiations even more complicated.

Australian Associated Press