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Finland to use UK vote as Britain pulls out of EU meetings

The UK government has said that it wants officials to focus on Brexit preparations.

Britannian ja EU:n liput liehuvat lipputangoissa Brysselissä.
Image: Laurent Dubrule / EPA

UK officials announced on Tuesday that starting 1 September, Britain will no longer send representatives to most EU meetings, effectively halving the country's representation at EU forums.

The UK government said in a letter to EU diplomats that it will hand over its vote to Finland, which currently holds the presidency of the Council of the European Union.

"The UK government remains committed to the duty of sincere cooperation and will not stand in the way of the conduct of EU business during this time," the Guardian reported the letter as saying.

"We are very grateful to you as presidency [sic] for agreeing to exercise our vote, if necessary, at meetings which we do not attend," it continued.

Focus on meetings with national significance

According to the announcement by the UK government, the country will only participate in meetings that have national significance, including issues relating to Brexit, internal government, international relations, security and the economy, a spokesperson told The Guardian.

"From now on we will only go to the meetings that really matter, reducing attendance by over half and saving hundreds of hours. This will free up time for ministers and their officials to get on with preparing for our departure on 31 October and seizing the opportunities that lie ahead," said Brexit minister Steve Barclay.

Opposition lawmakers responded against the decision by declaring that it would leave the UK in the dark with respect to many important matters.

"How do you know if important things are discussed if you are not there? Whilst we are still full members all decisions will affect us, from fishing quotas to digital markets," Liberal Democratic MEP Catherine Bearder told the paper.

Finland to honour UK's wishes

Johannes Leppo, senior ministerial adviser for legislative affairs in the Prime Minister's office, confirmed to Yle that the government had received the letter from the UK and that Finland intended to conform to its wishes.

Leppo described the procedure as compliant with EU rules, which he said did not require any special formalities and is widely used. Finland cannot use the UK's voting right to adopt a position that runs counter to the UK's wishes. The UK can notify Finland of its position on issues on a case by case basis.

He explained that it was not unusual for a country's minister to be unable to participate in an EU meeting or to have to leave before it ends. In such cases the country in question may notify the meeting chair of its position on an issue in advance and to have this stance noted in the decision-making.

In addition EU member states' postures on various issues are often known in advance or permanent representatives in Brussels often agree on specific questions in advance of formal meetings.

"So in meetings they do not always formally vote by 'pressing a button'," Leppo explained.

Loss of influence for UK

Leppo pointed out that if an important and potentially divisive matter arising in a meeting seems probable, a UK representative will likely show up to participate in the discussion.

In practice, as holder of the rotating EU Council presidency, Finland will, if needed, indicate the UK's position on specific issues.

However the current UK decision to cede its vote to Finland puts Finland in the position of 'representing' the departing member state.

Ultimately, by skipping EU meetings, the UK will lose the right to speak out. Sidebar meetings in particular involve a great deal of debate and discussion in which the contents of draft resolutions may be heavily edited – something that the UK will no longer be able to influence.

On Tuesday, the EU rejected an attempt by the UK government to re-open the existing Brexit agreement by re-negotiating the backstop issue.

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