Theresa May.jpg
New British Prime Minister Theresa May delivers a speech upon her arrival at No. 10 Downing Street, in London, Britain, 13 July 2016.
Photograph: EPA/WILL OLIVER

Britain is prepared to forgo its six-month European Council presidency in 2017 because officials will be busy negotiating the terms of Brexit, Prime Minister Theresa May's office told EU President Donald Tusk on Wednesday.

May told Tusk that the decision was taken because her government expects to be occupied next year with negotiations on leaving the European Union, a Downing Street spokeswoman said.

After Tusk called May on Tuesday evening to congratulate her on becoming prime minister, she "suggested that the UK should relinquish the rotating presidency of the council ... noting that we would be prioritizing the negotiations to leave the European Union," her office said in a later statement.

Tusk welcomed May's "swift decision on this issue, which would allow the council to put alternative arrangements in place," the statement said.

May said her government "will need to carefully prepare for the negotiations to leave the EU before triggering Article 50 [of the Lisbon Treaty]," which sets the rules for a nation leaving the EU.

Many British and EU politicians have urged her to trigger Article 50 to begin a two-year negotiation process as soon as possible, but May has said she will not do so before the start of 2017.

Speaking ahead of talks with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin late Wednesday, May said it would "take some time to prepare" for formal negotiations.

EU countries take turns at holding the bloc's presidency for six months at a time.

Slovakia currently holds the presidency. Under the current schedule, it is to be followed by Malta from January to June 2017, Britain from July to December 2017 and Estonia from January to June 2018.

Estonia is now expected to replace Britain in the line-up, sources told dpa. However, EU ambassadors have to give their blessing to the move, which still has to be finalized, the sources say on condition of anonymity.

All the ensuing presidencies would now move up by half a year until 2020, when Croatia will take a previously unscheduled turn.

Germany would then take over the EU's presidency in the second half of 2020, as previously foreseen.

The workload of the rotating presidency has been reduced since 2009, when specific officials were assigned to chair EU summits and handle foreign policy. The presidency's primary role now is to chair ministerial meetings and broker deals between the 28 EU member states and the European Parliament.

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