On Awkward Membership: Implications of British 'awkwardness' for the EU and beyond

By Simon Duke (EIPA)

The United Kingdom has long been thought of as ‘an awkward partner’, as in the title of Stephen George’s oft-cited 1990 book – but note, it is not the awkward partner. George went on to examine the relations of the Heath, Wilson, Callaghan and Thatcher governments with the EC/EU, noting that even the most pro-European post-war government under Edward Heath was ‘awkward’ (over EMU). George also usefully reminds the reader that it is governments and even individuals that are awkward, not countries.

The idea of ‘awkwardness’ is one that requires nuancing since there are gradations, ranging from persistent questioning to downright obstruction. The UK’s record falls more in the former category and it should be remembered that on many issues (support for enlarging the EU, advocacy of free trade principles, climate change and the implementation of EU directives and regulations) the UK was enthusiastically European.

Occasional awkwardness can also be positive, in the sense that it calls into question the sometimes untransparent aspects of the EU (like comitology) or actions of questionable legitimacy (Selmayr’s appointment as Secretary-General, or the Spitzenkandidat system which Prime Minister Cameron vociferously opposed). It is important to hold the EU’s institutions and officials accountable and if this means occasional awkwardness, so be it.

Nor, it should be noted, has the UK a monopoly over awkwardness (think only of the ‘empty chair crisis’). On those occasions when it was ostensibly ‘awkward’, it was often with a string of other EU members behind it. One of the interesting side-effects of Brexit will be that those who often stood behind the UK (such as Denmark, Finland, Latvia, the Netherlands and Sweden), will now have to be more vocal about their concerns and thus more potentially awkward.

But, of more serious concern are the more malignant forms of awkwardness. The first manifestation of this was in 2000 when Jörg Haider’s far-right party entered into a coalition government in Austria. It was this crisis and the EU’s ineffective and clumsy handling that led to Article 7 of the Nice Treaty. While Article 7 (now of the TEU) gives the EU a handbrake, it is difficult to use.

Article 7.1 has been invoked, on the grounds that Poland’s judicial reforms pose ‘a serious risk to the rule of law’, but this only results in the issuance of a formal warning and recommendations. Britain’s response has been characteristically muddled under the current government, with Prime Minister May refusing to comment on the Commission’s activation of Article 7.1 by the European Commission during a visit to Poland in December 2017. Yet, in July, the Bar Human Rights Committee of England and Wales unambiguously called on the President, government and parliament to reject the offending draft laws which pose a threat to judicial independence and the rule of law. Article 7.2 opens up the possibility of harsher actions, including the loss of voting rights, but this requires the European Council to act unanimously and Hungary’s Viktor Orbán has already declared his intention to block any such attempt.

What has transpired in Poland (and Hungary) is a more obvious form of malign awkwardness. British awkwardness was, arguably, never of malign. Yet years of elite ‘awkwardness’ (at ministerial or Prime Minister level) nevertheless had a corrosive effect on British public opinion and attitudes towards the Union, akin to Ovid’s observation about the dripping of water onto a rock. The ‘awkwardness’ narrative, which complemented stereotypes about the ‘island people’, exceptionalism and a skewed sense of history, lacked a persuasive counter-narrative. 

Herein lies the wider lesson of Brexit for ‘awkwardness’ more generally. At a time of resurgent nationalism, mounting xenophobia and populism, it is all too easy to dismiss doubts and fundamental challenges to the EU as ‘awkwardness’. This would be a mistake since what the Union so desperately needs is its own convincing counter-narrative. The EU has a compelling story to tell, even it often fails to laud its own successes, but it can also be inward-looking and technocratic. It also has its own form of ‘structural awkwardness’ due to the lack of any agreed finalité to the European project. Engaging with more benign forms of ‘awkwardness’ is essential if the Union wishes to avoid the more malign variants. This is something that the Union cannot and should not do alone; universities and cities like Maastricht have an essential role to play in understanding and engaging with awkwardness in all of its forms.

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