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Why Europe will miss the disruptive Brits – The Guardian

It was almost embarrassing to be British in Brussels in the 1990s. A one-country awkward squad, we faced hostility across the continent and were accused of lacking values and promoting Dickensian labour conditions when John Major’s government tried to block the 48-hour limit on the working week.

After the 1996 outbreak of mad cow disease, and faced with a Europe-wide ban on exports of British beef and every British-made foodstuff from jelly to digestive biscuits, Major launched the Great British Beef War – a policy of non-cooperation that obstructed some 100 EU decisions.

Major had taken up where Margaret Thatcher had left off. At her first EU summit in Dublin, she demanded “her” money back from the European budget – infuriating both the German chancellor Helmut Schmidt and French president Valéry Giscard d’Estaing. “She was asking for her pennies back, when she hadn’t yet spent one,” Giscard is said to have quipped to Schmidt.

David Cameron maintained the awkward tradition. Long before his ill-fated renegotiation, he spoke of finding EU summits “immensely frustrating”. In 2013, he accused fellow European leaders of “an ambush at 1am”. When France made a late-night attempt on the British budget rebate that Thatcher had secured all those years earlier, Cameron announced he would “lock and load” his gun with a bullet “up the spout”.

John Major

‘John Major launched the Great British Beef War – a policy of non-cooperation that obstructed some 100 EU decisions.’ Photograph: John Reardon for the Observer

So will Europe without the Brits turn out to be a harmonious club? My suspicion is not, despite Jean-Claude Juncker’s claim this week that “the wind is back in Europe’s sails” and that a new drive for closer integration is on the way. The reality is that for almost five decades, hiding behind the awkward Brits has been the oldest trick in Brussels.

The UK’s constant digging-in of heels has allowed other governments to steer clear of negotiating clashes, safe in the knowledge that Britain and its Eurosceptic media would do the blocking of unpopular measures for them.

Take the seemingly trivial example from 2013, of rules about how olive oil could be served in restaurants. “There was a daft proposal that it couldn’t be served in bowls or glass jugs at the table, but only in sealed sachets,” recalls a senior Dutch official. “We didn’t have to do anything – the Brits and their tabloids did the heavy lifting for us, and the proposal was withdrawn … Every time the European Commission proposes something, we know we can rely on the British to kick and shout so it’s blocked. With Brexit, that’s no longer going to be possible.”

Even that opt-out over the 48-hour week for which the UK fought its lonely battle is now – 20 years later – quietly being used by 15 other member states.

So which country may end up replacing Britain as Europe’s new troublemaker-in-chief? Poland and Hungary are the obvious candidates because, across a whole range of areas, from civil liberties to media freedoms, the two countries find themselves at odds with the EU. As one senior EU official put it: “They are simply not in line with fundamental EU policies. As new member states they should be enthusiastic, but it’s the opposite.”

Beata Szydło, for example, tells us a lot about what the EU will look like after 2019 when Britain is supposed to exit. The Polish prime minister’s intemperate language at a recent European summit was previously the kind of thing the EU’s top brass expected only from the British. She would not accept “blackmail from a leader with an approval rating of 4%” she raged against France’s then president François Hollande. Poland is now facing EU legal action over judicial reforms which Brussels says would undermine Polish democracy.

Beata Szydło

‘Polish prime minister Beata Szydło’s intemperate language at a recent European summit was previously the kind of thing the EU’s top brass expected only from the British.’ Photograph: Sławomir Kamiński/Agencja Gazeta via Reuters

Ironically, we may need to look to a more unlikely quarter to find Europe’s true new bad boy. Because post-Brexit, the Germans will end up being much more unpopular. “Without Britain,” one EU official told me, “they will have to assume the role they are historically reluctant to play.”

Indeed, the eurozone crisis provided a foretaste of how this could play out. With Britain outside the single currency, all the anger was directed against Germany and its chancellor, Angela Merkel, when things went wrong. Pictures of Merkel with a Hitler moustache were everywhere in the Greek press. And the old joke about Merkel arriving at Athens airport – the one where the border guard asks “Occupation?” and Merkel replies, “No, just visiting” – took on new life. Expect much more of this.

Odds are against Merkel’s rival, Martin Schulz, the former president of the European parliament, beating her in the general election on 24 September, but if he does, anger against Germany could ignite. “He has not got the diplomatic skills of Merkel,” said one British MEP. Schulz could become a lightning rod for anger against Germany.

Europe post-Brexit may be anything but united. Perhaps only when the most disruptive pupil is expelled will the teacher discover how unruly the rest of the class are. Juncker and his colleagues may find the Brexit negotiations were actually the easy bit.

Nigel Gardner is a former European Commission spokesman. He produced BBC2’s 2016 documentary series, Europe: Them or Us

Why Europe will miss the disruptive Brits – The Guardian

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