The UK government announced on Tuesday (20 August) that its officials will stop attending most EU meetings as of 1 September in order to focus efforts elsewhere ahead of its expected withdrawal from the bloc. London will also cede its voting rights to Finland in areas that are no longer of interest.
British officials will soon only attend meetings at EU level where the UK “has a significant national interest in the outcome of discussions, such as on security”, according to an announcement by the Department for Exiting the EU.
Other issues that will remain on the UK radar include Brexit, “sovereignty, international relations or finance”.
“This decision reflects the fact that the UK’s exit from the EU on 31 October is now very close and many of the discussions in EU meetings will be about the future of the Union after the UK has left,” the statement adds.
One EU diplomat told EURACTIV that it is odd that the UK does not include environment or climate on its list of interests, given that the country hopes to host an upcoming edition of the UN climate summit.
Brexit Secretary of State Steve Barclay said that “an incredible amount of time and effort goes into EU meetings”, adding that attendance will be slashed by half and that “hundreds of hours” will be saved.
Those no-shows at meetings “will free up time for […] officials to get on with preparing for our departure on 31 October and seizing the opportunities that lie ahead,” Barclay added.
Liberal MEP Catherine Bearder (ALDE) said that the announcement was “a pointless gesture driven by domestic politics which devalues our membership of the EU and shows nothing but contempt for our influence in Brussels and our allies”.
Britain’s members of the European Parliament will be unaffected by the government’s latest decision, with Labour lawmaker Rory Palmer confirming that “this nonsense doesn’t apply to MEPs”.
The big Finnish
The UK has actually upped its presence in Brussels since the 2016 referendum resulted in a vote to leave the EU, swelling its ranks from around 100 officials to more than 150.
But non-attendance by a still-influential member state such as the UK has the potential to obstruct EU decision-making, as abstentions in votes could skew the outcome when it comes to Union business.
In order to avoid that scenario, the UK will delegate its voting rights in meetings it does not attend to Finland, which currently holds the rotating presidency of the Council of the EU, according to a letter seen by EURACTIV.
Brexit negotiator David Frost told fellow diplomats in the note that Finland should use its power of attorney over the British vote “in a way that does not prevent the EU from moving ahead”.
Scottish MEP Alyn Smith (Greens/EFA) pointed out on Twitter that the UK, a country of more than 66 million inhabitants, had ceded its decision-making to a nation of just 5 million.
The government announcement also confirmed that Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who was appointed to take over from Theresa May by the ruling Conservative party, will attend European Council meetings.
Under the government’s current timetable, that means that Johnson will only join his 27 EU counterparts for one meeting, at the summit scheduled for 12-13 October.
[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]