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EU leaders debate Brexit as UK election indicates a way out

By Lorne Cook, Associated Press

European Union leaders have debated Britain's departure from the bloc amid some relief that Boris Johnson has secured a parliamentary majority that should allow him to push the long-stalled Brexit divorce deal through the UK Parliament.

With or without an agreement, Britain is scheduled on January 31 to become the first country to leave the world's biggest trading bloc.

Al 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 by the departure of a heavyweight member state.

The sense of relief was evident among European business groups too, although 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 UK.

There are still questions over the future relationship after Brexit and whether tariff-free trade between the UK 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.

But he conceded: "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 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 concerns that it could lead to other departures, but those fears have dissipated as the process has been so politically divisive and expensive.

Although the pathway to Britain's departure by January 31 is reasonably clear, the future relationship between the country and the EU is not. Discussions 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 Mr Johnson on his victory, new EU Council president Charles Michel said: "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 co-operation in the future with the UK."

Ultimately, the Brexit divorce negotiations may 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.

But the EU member countries will first have to agree on a new negotiating mandate for Mr 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, Mr Michel said: "It is not my intention to predict based on the experience of the past."

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