Is Britain more or less Awkward the other Member States

Table of Content

1. Introduction:

This report discusses the challenges with answering the question and then discusses resource based theory in an attempt to pinpoint whether Britain is more or less awkward than the other member states.

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1.1 An Awkward Partner:

‘An Awkward Partner’ (George, S. 1992) brings together the main threads of Britain’s relationship with the EC and EU and considers Britain awkward according to the dictionary definition: ‘clumsy, bungling” (George, S. 1995. p.43). One reason for Britain’s awkwardness, discussed in academic literature, arises from her commitments to the Commonwealth and US. A Venn diagram can be used to illustrate the complexity of Britain’s commitments (Fig.1). Butter trade links with the Commonwealth meant Britain attempted to safeguard New Zealand’s trade while conforming to Europe’s agricultural policy (Singleton, J. & Robertson, P. 2003).

‘An Awkward Partner’ thesis solely concerns Britain and therefore this report will need to look elsewhere to answer the question. I consider the thesis more of an anthology of significant examples of Government behaviour used to backup the argument that Britain is awkward. An anthology of examples where British governments have been cooperative or where French, Danish, Spanish governments etc. have been awkward could be compiled. This is not a failure on George’s behalf but the thesis is limited in being able to answer the question. In determining whether Britain is more or less ‘awkward’ than the other member states this report will focus on everyday policy making. This is mandatory as the report demands a comparative politics (CP) approach.

1.2 Problems for Comparative Politics:

There is a problem for the CP approach at the European level of analysis. The EU can be considered sui generis1. Considering the EU to be sui generis seems reasonable when noting that the European project was ‘without historical precedent’ (Anderson, P. 1996: p.17). This gives rise to the n=1 problem.

1.3 Overcoming the n=1 problem:

The challenge for the CP approach at the European level gives rise to the n=1 problem. Before an answer to the question can be given this problem must be solved.

The problem is that the EU is only an instance of itself and therefore can not be compared to anything. Simon Hix (1998: p.43) may provide a solution arguing the EU ‘may be a strange variant of an already well understood species’. In identifying the EU as a political system (a well understood species) the use of CP theories become valid. Hix (1999: p.2) provides a formal framework that identifies the everyday policy making activities of a political system.

1. Institutions (governed by legislation) provide for collective decision-making.

2. Civil society can access the European Union.

3. Co-decision results in the distribution of social and political resources.

4. The EU is politically alive.

The EU at the level of everyday policy making is a political system2. International relations (IR) theories are unable to explain everyday policy making in the EU. For example activities in the ECJ not accurately represented by IR; ‘almost by definition’, an international organization ‘does not have a court that exercises judicial review in the sphere of constitutional law’ (Peterson, J. 2001. p.296). The appropriate level of analysis has been identified meaning the report will now assess empirical data to determine whether Britain is more or less awkward than the other member states.

2. Everyday policy making:

The IR theory of liberal integovernmentalism has failed to fully explain the policy network that has come to exist within the European Union’s everyday activities. Post-Maastricht, multi-level governance theories provide the preferred explanation of everyday policy making. The multi-level structure is being created by subnational and supranational actors with limited or no access for member state governments. The question is why would member states governments limit their sovereignty? Resource based theory provides strong reasoning. The governments create a multi-level structure of governance providing that four domestic political resources are returned to them.

* Initiative

* Institutions

* Information

* Ideas

Return of these resources ultimately strengthens governments by providing cost-effective compensation. This theory only has substance post-Maastricht however.

2.1 Post-Maastricht:

The Maastricht treaty (1992) created multi-level governance. The question cannot be answered prior to the Maastricht treaty as no comparison between member states can be made. States protected their national interests through the EU forum where Britain was no singlehanded perpetrator of awkwardness. British awkwardness is considered during the Major, Blair and Brown governments.

3. The Legal Systems:

The European legal system has entered the domain of the nation state through the ECJ’s preliminary references and the Commission’s monitoring of policy implementation. Legal action would be brought against the Britain for failure to fulfil its obligations as a member states. Relative to Italy, France, Germany (similar variables= European political authority and population) and Ireland (similar variables= time of accession), Britain appears far from bungling (see Fig.1 & Fig.2). As mentioned, the activities of the ECJ are best understood by CP theories and the comparison, acknowledging similar variables, suggests that Britain is less awkward than the other member states. The extent to which a member state fulfils obligations (e.g. implementing regulations) indicates how much of an awkward partner they are in cooperating with community standards (e.g. uniformity).

3.1 Minister voting behaviour:

The Council of the European Union adopts definitive legislative acts. Looking at the voting of the ministers indicates whether a member state is awkward. The relevant minister will most often vote on the act (e.g. CAP involves agricultural ministers).

These meetings can be distinguished from summit meetings between heads of state. They are part of everyday policy making and therefore part of multi-level governance as the legislation engages other institutions (e.g. co-decision procedure with the EP). Britain is responsible for the highest amount of abstentions (Fig.4). However, they are not truly a demonstration of awkwardness as the legislation is nearly always passed. Votes against an act provide better evidence of awkwardness however. In this respect Britain is in 6th place, considerably behind the likes of Denmark (similar variable= time of accession). The Council is an institution where national interests can be protected. If a member state was going to display characteristics of awkwardness they would be present here. Britain appears increasingly less awkward in comparison the other member states. Awkwardness may be fostered elsewhere however.

4. Opposition Government:

Adversarial politics in the UK means that the opposition will nearly always challenge further European integration. This results from a political cleavage which the opposition can exploit to win votes. The result is that the government can not approach Europe too enthusiastically. Resource based theory suggests that the government would pursue Europeanization as it reduces political transaction costs. Therefore, the awkward perception of Britain in politics arises largely through the opposition.

4.1 The Media

The media has always taken a Euro-skeptic stance. This is especially the case with the tabloid press. This may give reason why it is so difficult for a government to embrace Europe enthusiastically. The affect that the media has on civil society is therefore notable and Britain is known for its Euro-skeptic press. On 26th June 2003, the Irish tabloids applauded the Euro. This would be far from likely in the event of Britain joining the Euro.

5. Conclusion:

One has to go beyond the anthology of events where Britain has appeared awkward. Looking at everyday policy making this report has discussed the problems of identifying the concept of awkwardness in the community. Governments are the first to benefit from European participation and therefore the elites are least awkward. Adversarial politics and the Euro-skeptic media play a part in the sentiment that Britain is awkward. Britain is no more awkward than other member states in terms of hindering European integration as other states demand priorities as well as rejecting supranational integration.

Notes on Fig 4:

[1] represents votes Against and [2] represents votes Abstention. When voting is unanimity the definitive legislative act can still be adopted if a member state has decline to vote (abstention).

Further Information on the Europa Glossary at:


Anderson, P. (1996) The Europe to Come. London Review of Books 25th January

Buller, J. (1995). Britain as an Awkward Partner: Reassessing Britain’s relationship with the EU. Politics. Vol.15. No.1p.33-42

George, S. (1992). An Awkward Partner: Britain in the European Community. Oxford University Press Inc., New York

George, S. (1995). A Reply to Buller. Politics. Vol.15. No.1p.43-47

Hix, S. (1994). The Study of the European Community: The Challenge to Comparative Politics. West European Politics. Vol.17. No.1p.1-30

Hix, S. (1998) The Study of the European Union II: The ‘new governance’ agenda and its rival. Journal of European Public Policy. Vol.5. No.1p.38-65

Hix, S. (2005). The Political System of the European Union. Palgrave Macmillan

Pollack, M.A. (2005). Theorizing the European Union: International Organization, Domestic Polity or Experiment in New Governance. Annual Review of Political Science Vol.8p.357-398

Singleton, J. & Robertson, P.L. 2003. Britain, Butter, and European Integration, 1957-1964. The Economic History Review. Vol.50. No.2 p.327-347

1 Of its own kind

2 See Simon Hix (1994) and Andrew Hurrell/ Anand Menon (1996) for a contemporary discussion on theories of European integration.

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