British officials will stop attending most EU meetings from September, the Brexit secretary, Steve Barclay, has said, suggesting his department would slash attendance by more than half to “unshackle” officials and ministers.
The government will now only send officials to EU meetings where the UK has “a significant national interest in the outcome of discussions, such as on security” and instead focus on countries outside the bloc.
Barclay said the numbers of meetings attended would be cut by more than half, dramatically reducing workload and preparation time.
“An incredible amount of time and effort goes into EU meetings, with attendance just the tip of the iceberg. Our diligent, world-class officials also spend many hours preparing for them whether in reading the necessary papers or working on briefings,” he said.
“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.”
The move is likely to prompt concerns that British officials will be left in the dark about EU strategy. The Department for Exiting the European Union (DExEU) claimed most discussions at the meetings that Britain would no longer attend would be irrelevant because they would be focused on the future of the EU after the UK left.
One EU diplomat described the decision as “stupid”, and said: “There are rules that you could influence that will always have an impact on you whatever happens. I would participate in those meetings.”
But a British government spokesman said: “As a departing member state it makes sense to ‘unshackle’ officials from these EU meetings to enable them to better focus their talents on our immediate national priorities.”
Officials would be told to refocus on preparations for leaving the EU and on trade deals with other countries.
DExEU said decisions would be made on a case-by-case base depending on the agendas of the meetings to give “the right amount of flexibility”. Areas where the UK is to prioritise attendance include meetings on the UK exit, sovereignty, international relations, security and finance.
The decision to withdraw from most EU business is an abrupt change in policy. Under Theresa May, the government continued to attend EU meetings, although often stepped back from being an active participant, especially on policies deemed unlikely to affect the UK following Brexit, such as the EU’s future budget.
EU officials were bemused by the government’s plan when it emerged last week, with many viewing it as a move for domestic consumption. There is also uncertainty about what it means for their British colleagues, who are expected to be lobbying EU diplomats for information before or after meetings. “It just seems like a little bit of an own goal, but this is a taster of what life will be like outside,” one EU official said.
About 150 foreign office officials are based in Brussels, including at the UK’s permanent representation to the EU, where they work on EU laws and foreign policy decisions. The UK has steadily increased its presence in Brussels over the last few years – before the 2016 there were only 100 foreign office officials working at Ukrep, Nato and elsewhere in Brussels.
In a letter to EU diplomats from Boris Johnson’s EU envoy David Frost, the government reveals that it will cede its vote to Finland, the current holder of the EU’s rotating presidency.
“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,” states the letter seen by the Guardian. “We are very grateful to you as presidency for agreeing to exercise our vote, if necessary, at meetings which we do not attend.”
As a large country, British abstention could inadvertently block laws, either made by unanimity or qualified majority votes where opinion is split.
Liberal Democrat MEP Catherine Bearder criticised the move as a “pointless gesture” that showed “nothing but contempt” for British influence in Brussels and for UK allies. “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,” she said.
UK MPs criticised the language used in the missive from Barclay. Tom Brake, the Lib Dems’ Brexit spokesman, called it a “petulant move”.
“The inflammatory language used to describe it, demonstrates that this Conservative government is not serious about constructively engaging with our EU partners,” said Brake.
Labour’s Martin Whitfield, a supporter of the People’s Vote campaign, called the move “the great flounce” and said it was “a pitiful retreat from our position at the heart of European decision-making”.
Boris Johnson is still expected to attend the European council meeting the week before the UK is due to leave.