BRUSSELS (AFP) - European leaders at their Brussels summit Thursday (Dec 12) expressed hope that by the time their late-night budget debate is over British voters will have decided how they want to pursue Brexit.
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 have an ear to the ground for news from across the Channel.
Leaders were tight-lipped as they arrived for the summit but privately many officials in Brussels say they hope British Prime Minister Boris Johnson wins a working majority in Thursday's vote.
Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar did not endorse Johnson's vow to "Get Brexit Done", but stressed the need for a decisive verdict.
"I imagine most prime ministers and presidents will be staying up all night to watch the results, so we'll all be a bit bleary eyed in the morning," he told reporters ahead of the summit.
"Obviously, it's entirely a decision for the people of the UK to elect whatever government they want and I just hope the result is decisive so that we know where we're going over the next few months."
Some European officials argue that with a majority, Johnson will 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 in bleak British winter weather, 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.
The leaders are set to approve formal summit conclusions stressing the need for a "balance of rights and obligations and ensure a level playing field" in any future deal - a shot across the bows of hardline Brexiteers wanting Britain to be free to diverge from EU standards.
'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 their best chance of a orderly divorce.
Luxembourg's Prime Minister Xavier Bettel said the next British leader should have a majority "to fulfil the agreements we decided on both sides".
And he called for "a parliament in London that agrees on the future relationship, and all these things very quickly".
"We'll work with whatever the outcome is," Varadkar said, suggesting that either Johnson or a coalition of British opposition parties opposed to Brexit might end up with a majority.
"But what's been very hard to work with is a parliament that was a hung parliament... and I just hope we're not in that position tomorrow."
Aside from the Irish, only Donald Tusk, Michel's predecessor as head of the 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."