It is not good form for the British to be awkward and obstructive. The art of the compromise was the polite British way of doing things. Or so it used to be thought. But Europe’s axis has tilted since Theresa May’s inability to secure an exit from the EU. Jacob Rees-Mogg’s recent tweet calling for Britain to be ‘difficult’ and paralyse the workings of the EU from inside sums up this toppling of conventional etiquette.
Now that the extension has been granted until 31 October with few constraints on British membership, should Britain form an awkward squad in Brussels to block Europe’s institutions? And if so, where do we look for inspiration and lessons in how to be difficult?
A knee jerk reference might be Margaret Thatcher’s 1979 strident cry to Brussels: “I want my money back!” Her dogged pursuit of a British rebate from European meeting to meeting finally paid off in 1984 during the European council’s French presidency. The guileful but charmed Francois Mitterrand facilitated the transaction remarking that Mrs Thatcher has ‘the mouth of Marilyn Monroe and the eyes of Caligula’. But Thatcher never paralysed the institutions and was only successful after nearly five years of hand-bagging.
For a better example we need to cast our minds back to 1965. But it was not in Britain that the model of how to irk Brussels and get one’s way was to be found. For that we have to turn to France. In that year, French president Charles de Gaulle, unhappy that Germany and Brussels were attempting to hand the agricultural subsidies budget to the Commission – and crucially to move from unanimous to majority decision-making – began his ‘empty chair’ policy. At the cabinet meeting on 30 June, he railed against the ‘chimera of federalists’.