Theresa May (R).jpg
British Prime Minister Theresa May (R) arrives in Downing Street, Central London, Britain, 14 July 2016.
Photograph: EPA/WILL OLIVER

Prime Minister Theresa May has told EU President Donald Tusk that Britain wants to give up its six-month presidency of the European Council scheduled for next year, her office said on Wednesday.

May told Tusk by phone 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.

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

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

Slovakia currently holds the presidency. It is scheduled to be followed by Malta from January to June 2017, Britain from July to December 2017 and Estonia from January to June 2018.

Malta has already expressed reluctance over extending its stint to a full year, while Estonian Prime Minister Taavi Roivas told the BNS news agency this week that his country would rather not move its presidency forward.

Roivas suggested that Belgium, which is home to the EU institutions, may take over for Britain.

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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