The UK gives up the presidency of the Council of the EU

Those who didn’t believe in Britain’s new PM unambiguous slogan, “Brexit means Brexit”, have just found an answer in Theresa May’s announcement that the UK will relinquish the presidency of the Council of the EU in 2017.

The UK was scheduled to take over the six months’ rotating presidency of the Council of the EU from Malta in July 2017. In light of the UK’s vote to leave the EU, the new PM decided efforts should instead be channelled into negotiating a successful (or at least not the worst possible) exit deal for the country.

This is one sign the UK is indeed losing its voice in Brussels.  While Britain remains a formal member of the EU until the divorce papers are signed – with formal withdrawal negotiations not expected to start before the end of the year – it’s already scaling back its role in EU affairs by giving up on the opportunity to shape the EU’s agenda.

The rotating presidency of the Council, currently held by Slovakia, offers each of the 28 member states a six month window of opportunity to set the EU agenda, including planning and chairing meetings as well as ensuring legislative processes are conducted “properly” by the Council.

The Council has a prominent role in EU decision making. It contributes to negotiating and adopting EU laws. It also coordinates member states’ policies in a number of fields, including economic and fiscal policies – among which are the adoption of member states’ budgets – employment and education policies. Not only does the Council define and implement EU foreign and security policy as well as adopting the EU budget, but it also provides the Commission’s mandate to negotiate on behalf of the EU agreements between EU and non-EU countries and international organisations.

Who will take the UK’s empty seat is yet to be established. While it is likely that Estonia may be asked to take forward its presidency, scheduled to start not earlier than January 2018, Belgium and Hungary have already said they would be ready to step in to fill the place left vacant by the UK, as reported by Politico.

The scheduled UK presidency was also among the reasons for holding an early referendum on EU membership, as holding a referendum during the presidency was regarded as undesirable. Now that the results are known (to the disappointment of many) it seems undesirable for the UK to shape the agenda of a Union it will no longer be part of.