BRUSSELS (Reuters) - EU leaders welcomed Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s election triumph on Friday as a chance to put three years of Brexit frustration behind them, but cautioned that talks on a new EU-UK relationship would be very difficult.
Johnson won a crushing victory in Thursday’s election, allowing him to deliver on his promise of taking Britain out of the EU at the end of next month.
The other 27 national leaders meeting in Brussels on Friday called for a swift ratification of their divorce deal by the new British parliament so that talks on the future relationship can start during a transition period due to run until next December.
“It will be very complicated. It’s about an array of relations, in trade, in fishing and cooperation in security and foreign policy,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel told a news conference after the summit.
“Our biggest hurdle will be that we need to sort out these issues very quickly. We need to conclude by the end of next year and decide already in June whether we want to extend the negotiation period. Britain has said it does not want an extension.”
For many in Europe, Britain was seen as a pragmatic, free-trading nation whose position as one of the EU’s two military powers along with France gave the EU a bigger global voice.
But now the EU, the world’s biggest trading bloc, is resigned to Brexit and wants to get on with unravelling more than 40 years of British membership, even if that is likely to take more than the 12 months that some in London are hoping for.
Summit chairman Charles Michel said the EU-27 wanted “a very strong strategic relationship” with Britain after Brexit.
“But the EU is ready to defend and promote its interests. The level playing field is a very important goal,” he said of the bloc’s insistence on provisions to guarantee fair competition in any new trade deal with Britain.
In a joint statement, the 27 EU leaders said the future relationship with Britain would have to be based on a “balance of rights and obligations and ensure a level playing field”.
EU trade pacts with countries such as South Korea, Japan and Canada have taken between five and nine years to complete. EU officials say Johnson’s plan to diverge from EU rules, rather than mirror them, could make negotiations even more complicated.
French President Emmanuel Macron said that the more Britain chose to deregulate its economy after Brexit, the more it would lose access to the EU’s cherished single market.
“I don’t think that you can have a strong relationship with Europe’s single market with substantial regulatory differences on climate, environmental, economic or social regulations,” he told a news conference in Brussels.
The head of the bloc’s executive European Commission, which negotiates with Britain on behalf of the 27 states, rammed the message home.
“The timeframe ahead of us is very challenging,” Ursula von der Leyen said. “We will be ready to get the most out of the short period available... Yes, the UK will become a third country but at the very end we will have an unprecedented partnership.”
Reporting by Gabriela Baczynska, Jan Srupczewski, Marine Strauss, Robin Emmott, Michel Rose, Philip Blenkinsop and John Chalmers, Writing by Gabriela Baczynska; Editing by Gareth Jones