PM May relinquishes Britain’s 6-month EU presidency ahead of Merkel meeting

Britain's Prime Minister, Theresa May © Peter Nicholls
Britain will give up its scheduled six-month European Council presidency following last month’s referendum vote for Brexit, Downing Street has said.

Prime Minister Theresa May told council president Donald Tusk of the decision on Tuesday.

“The prime minister suggested that the UK should relinquish the rotating Presidency of the Council, currently scheduled for the second half of 2017, noting that we would be prioritizing the negotiations to leave the European Union,” a spokesperson for the prime minister said, according to Reuters.

“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.”

The presidency rotates between the 28 EU member states on a six-monthly basis, giving each the opportunity to shape the agenda.

The UK was due to hold the seat from July 2017.

May will meet German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Wednesday and French President Francois Hollande on Thursday for the first time since becoming Britain’s new prime minister.

She says she hopes to have “frank and open” discussions with the European leaders, as maintaining strong trading links with Europe was key to ensuring the UK “made a success” of Brexit.

May is expected to emphasize the value the UK placed on its economic, trading and security relationships with France and Germany and its commitment to maintaining strong ties outside of the EU.

She has spoken to Merkel and Hollande on the phone since becoming prime minister, but their first face-to-face meetings this week will be important in setting the tone for Brexit negotiations ahead.

The PM says she does not want to commence formal negotiations before the end of the year, as she first needs to consult with the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish governments, and other stakeholders about the way ahead.

The German and French leaders have said Britain’s vote to leave the EU must be respected and the country given time to formulate its negotiating strategy.

But as both leaders are facing re-election next year, they are under domestic pressure to drive a hard bargain.

They have suggested no exceptions can be made for Britain in terms of continued access to the EU’s single market if, as May has insisted, the UK absents itself from freedom of movement rules.

Speaking to the BBC before her trip, May said: “These visits will be an opportunity to forge a strong working relationship that we can build upon and which I hope to develop with more leaders across the European Union in the weeks and months ahead.”

“I do not underestimate the challenge of negotiating our exit from the European Union and I firmly believe that being able to talk frankly and openly about the issues we face will be an important part of a successful negotiation.”

The German government said the two leaders would also discuss the refugee crisis in Europe and the political situation in Turkey following last Friday’s attempted coup.

The first time May will face all 27 EU leaders at the same time will be at October’s European Council meeting.