The Union Jack (bottom) and the European Union flag are seen flying, at the border of Gibraltar with Spain, in the British overseas territory of Gibraltar, historically claimed by Spain, June 27, 2016, after Britain voted to leave the European Union in the EU Brexit referendum. REUTERS/Jon Nazca/Files(reuters_tickers)
By Alastair Macdonald
BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Brexit has torn a hole in the European Union's political calendar for next year and Brussels hopes new British Prime Minister Theresa May can help fix it in the coming days.
EU host Belgium might also enable a solution by filling a gap left by London, EU sources told Reuters on Wednesday.
At issue is Britain's scheduled six-month spell in charge of EU ministerial councils in the second half of 2017, a Union tradition known as the presidency.
British and EU officials assume May will not want the cost and trouble while she negotiates Brexit. Most see it as absurd to have London set agendas for EU lawmaking that would soon not apply to Britain.
But David Cameron did not renounce London's right to the presidency next year before stepping down as prime minister on Wednesday.
That has left the EU and leaders of two of its newest and smallest members in a jam. Malta starts its first presidency on Jan. 1 and was to hand over on July 1 next year to Britain, which would in turn pass the baton to Estonia six months later.
Now those schedules, and planning for them, are in disarray.
A variety of solutions has been discussed for if -- more likely, when -- Britain drops out. Officials say a fix may be agreed next week to give those involved maximum time to prepare.
"We hope for clarity next week," a senior EU diplomat said.
One lately favoured solution, under which Malta would spend an extra three months in the chair and Estonia then start its presidency three months early, giving both nine months rather than six, has hit legal obstacles, one EU source said.
An alternative is to shunt the whole calendar forward and have Estonia take over instead of Britain on July 1. But that puts a burden on Estonia, the EU's fourth smallest state. One new solution, EU sources told Reuters, may be for founder member Belgium, the host of the EU, to slot into Britain's place.
Belgian officials say that no formal offer has been made and Belgium is not yet sure it could take on the role -- though it has had ample experience over nearly 60 years and the advantage of having its entire civil service on hand in Brussels anyway.
The presidency is an opportunity for influence -- ministers from the presidency chair meetings and prepare agendas. But it is also a burden, especially for small states, costing tens of millions of euros, tying up officials for years in planning and obliging great expansion of their EU embassies in Brussels.
Since Britain voted, Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel has called on europhile states to speed up integration, though big powers France and Germany have been more cautious, fearing that might bolster Brexit-inspired eurosceptics across the bloc.
(Additional reporting by Paul Taylor; Editing by Gareth Jones)