The EU Hopes Boris Johnson Wins Big to Get Brexit Over With

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(Bloomberg) -- Here’s something European officials are loath to admit in public: They would quite like Boris Johnson to triumph in U.K. elections.

Despite personal and political differences, and a lingering lack of trust, those close to EU chiefs privately acknowledge that a strong Johnson victory on Dec. 12 will mean the U.K.’s long-drawn-out departure from the European Union will finally happen, according to more than half a dozen EU officials speaking on condition of anonymity because the issue is delicate.

The EU Hopes Boris Johnson Wins Big to Get Brexit Over With

“Get Brexit Done” is the Conservative leader’s campaign slogan and after almost four years of agonizing negotiations, there is also a collective desire across the Channel to turn the page.

When Johnson took over as prime minister, Europeans were wary of the man they knew by reputation as a Brussels-bashing journalist, the face of the Leave campaign during the 2016 referendum and then for his gaffe-prone stint as foreign secretary. But his stock has risen in EU circles since then.

France’s Emmanuel Macron, in particular, has warmed to Johnson and the pair have personal chemistry, according to officials. That was most evident at the Group of Seven meeting in August, when Johnson was still attempting to strike a revised deal with the EU (which he did a few weeks later).

“Those who didn’t take him seriously were wrong,” Macron said when leaders gathered again for an October summit.

All of this will be on the minds of the 27 EU leaders, as they sit down for dinner on Thursday night. It won’t be until polls close at 10 p.m. local time that they will get an indication if Johnson will have the authority to take Britain out of the EU on Jan. 31 and start negotiating a post-Brexit relationship.

Aides to other European governments say improving relations go beyond Macron, and that Johnson impressed at a summit of NATO leaders he hosted near London last week. Officials said the discussion caught on camera -- where Johnson appeared to be joking with Macron, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte and Canada’s Justin Trudeau at Donald Trump’s expense -- was typical of the easy-going talks the U.K. leader has had with many counterparts in private.

Behind the scenes, the EU fear a “hung parliament” -- where no party has an overall majority and depends on rivals for support -- as that could lead to more paralysis. A weak, indecisive negotiating partner would hamper talks on a future trade arrangement that’s expected to start as soon the U.K. leaves.

The outcome matters to EU leaders because their economies will suffer if -- as Germany’s Angela Merkel has warned -- the U.K. strikes out alone and decides to undercut them with looser regulation and lower taxes.

EU leaders say they’re prepared for any outcome, with a reshaped negotiating team ready to tackle the next phase of talks.

They’re planning for the possibility of Johnson winning or failing to get a majority, as well as for Labour attaining power and seeking to rework the deal to keep the U.K. in a customs union before holding another referendum. While the idea of a re-do remains appealing to some in the EU, it’s a far less common attitude than it once was.

Donald Tusk, who last week called Britain’s departure “one of the most spectacular mistakes” in history, has left his position as European Council president to be replaced by former Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel, someone who officials say will take a far more pragmatic view.

Likewise, Ursula von der Leyen’s ascent to the head of the EU’s executive arm, in lieu of Jean-Claude Juncker, is seen by advisers as an opportunity for the EU to draw a line under Brexit and move on.

Question of Trust

Despite obvious advantages to the EU of a strong Conservative majority, a senior official confided that European governments are reluctant to trust Johnson. They don’t know how close he wants to be to the U.S. after Brexit, or even what kind of deal he really wants -- he’s indicated he’d like to keep trade free of tariffs or quotas and for the U.K. to diverge from many of the EU’s standards and regulations.

And they fear his promise to get a trade deal with the EU by the end of 2020 won’t be deliverable unless he goes back on some of his red lines.

But, in a sign of Johnson’s growing clout, they’re willing to give it a go. Officials say a bare-bones agreement in the most critical areas, without the need for long drawn-out ratification procedures in every national parliament, isn’t out of the question.

By dawn on Friday morning, the results of the U.K. election will be in -- just in time for leaders to get stuck into Brexit. According to a draft communique, they’ll pledge to reach a future deal with the U.K. “swiftly.”

But much will depend on the number of seats Johnson wins.

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.

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