European leaders arrived for their Brussels summit Thursday knowing that before their late-night budget debate is over British voters will have given their latest verdict on leaving the bloc.
The 27 remaining EU chiefs have a packed summit agenda and a dispute to resolve over how to fund the fight against climate change, but diplomats will have an ear to the ground for news from across the Channel.
Meeting reporters on their arrival, the leaders were tight-lipped, but privately many officials in Brussels say they hope Prime Minister Boris Johnson wins a working majority.
Only then, they believe, will he be able to ratify a deal to oversee an orderly British departure on January 31 and rapidly launch talks on the future trading relationship.
On Friday, when the British result is clear, they are expected to task the European Commission’s negotiator Michel Barnier with drawing up a united EU position on a trade deal for their approval.
In the meantime, however, with polling still under way, they were cautious.
“I have a lot of respect for the British voters, and I think they will find a wise solution,” said Ursula von der Leyen, attending her first EU summit as president of the European Commission.
Summit host Charles Michel, who as president of the European Council will wield the absent British leader’s vote at the summit, was also discreet.
“I show always respect for the choices made by the voters and we will wait and see what will be the outcome of this election,” he said.
‘No one knows’
Johnson made a career as a journalist and later as a leader of the pro-Brexit movement by criticising the European Union — making several enemies in Brussels.
But, after three years of chaotic attempts to agree separation terms in the wake of the 2016 British exit referendum, many EU leaders are resigned to Johnson representing the best chance of a orderly divorce.
Luxembourg’s Prime Minister Xavier Bettel said a British prime minister should have a majority “to fulfil the agreements we decided on both sides… a parliament in London that agrees on the future relationship, and all these things very quickly”.
Only Donald Tusk, Michel’s predecessor as head of EU council and now leader of the biggest pan-European party the centre-right EPP, still publicly entertains the idea of an alternative endgame.
“We don’t know what the result is going to be, no one knows, and how it will affect Brexit,” the former Polish premier said, as conservative leaders held an EPP meeting ahead of the main summit.
“But regardless of the result, which means regardless of whether it ends with Brexit, an impasse or a second referendum, the EU should do everything to have the best possible relations with the United Kingdom.
“Whatever happens, we must remain friends and closest partners.”