Britain will no longer take on the rotating EU presidency as planned next year, surrendering the role in the wake of the Brexit vote, Prime Minister Theresa May’s office said Wednesday (20 July).
May informed European Council president Donald Tusk of her decision in a phone call on Tuesday, noting that her government will be “very busy with negotiations to leave the EU”, a spokesman said.
“Donald Tusk welcomed the PM’s swift decision on this issue which would allow the Council to put alternative arrangements in place.”
Tusk told May in the same call that Brexit should be something like a “velvet divorce”.
— Donald Tusk (@eucopresident) July 19, 2016
But there is speculation in Brussels that May’s claims that Britain was too busy to take on the presidency should be taken with a large pinch of salt.
EU bosses were pushing for Britain to give up the role shortly after the Brexit vote was returned last month.
EU diplomats were briefing journalists in the days after the 23 June referendum that the UK was expected to give up the presidency. At that time, May’s predecessor David Cameron was still in charge.
According to information obtained by euractiv.com, some EU leaders feared that London may use the unsolved case of its rotating EU presidency as a bargaining chip to obtain better divorce conditions.
EU diplomats today told EURACTIV that the decision was not as a result of Britain coming under pressure.
“Everybody expected that the UK would give up the presidency sooner rather than later,” said one, who added the announcement gave time to bring in a replacement in good time.
Early ideas on how to handle the changes have already been circulated among ambassadors, who will meet later on Wednesday to decide who will replace Britain
Slovakia currently has the presidency, until 31 December, followed by Malta. Britain was due to take it from 1 July until 31 December, 2017. Estonia was scheduled to follow Britain.
Hungary is pushing to take the British spot, and shell out the millions of euros it costs to host the six-month rotating presidency. An EU diplomat told AFP that Belgium was a “serious option” as a replacement.
“Belgium is ready to take over this presidency if we are asked,” foreign ministry spokesman Didier Vanderhasselt said.
A spokesperson for the Slovakian presidency said, [We are] going to discuss steps following this new development. A decision is not envisaged today, however.”
EURACTIV understands that one proposal under consideration is that Estonia will be moved forward and the newest member state Croatia will fill the gap at the end of the queue, taking the presidency in the first six months of 2020.
After this story was published European Council President Donald Tusk said that Estonia would take Britain’s place.
Tusk’s spokesman said there was “broad agreement” when EU ambassadors met in Brussels “that Estonia’s presidency be brought forward by six months to take the place of the UK”.
He added that “subsequent presidencies, in the order they are currently foreseen, would all in turn be brought forward by six months”, meaning that Bulgaria will now take over in January 2018.
“It is hoped that this result will be confirmed through a formal decision shortly,” the spokesman added.
Article 50 is the legal process to take a member state out of the European Union.
EU leaders, Tusk, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and European Parliament President Martin Schulz heaped pressure on Britain to trigger it as soon as possible after the referendum result.
The Commission has adopted a hardline “no negotiation without notification” stance, meaning there will not hold any Brexit talks until Article 50 is activated.
The Downing Street spokesman said, “The Prime Minister explained that we will need to carefully prepare for the negotiations to leave the EU before triggering Article 50. Donald Tusk reassured the Prime Minister that he will help to make this process happen as smoothly as possible.”
May, who has said “Brexit means Brexit” is meeting German Chancellor Angela Merkel today and French President François Hollande tomorrow to thrash out a roadmap for Britain’s exit.
May has suggested that there would be no invoking of Article 50, until a full “UK approach” had been agreed. Scotland voted overwhelmingly for Remain, which has triggered calls for a second Scottish referendum on UK membership.