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Britain and Europe – The impact on Central Government

British politicians had difficulty adjusting to the European system.  Britain has a strong executive and the party in power is broadly able to decide policy and rely on the civil service to implement it.

Only since the Coalition in 2010 have things been, at least partially, different. The EU, in contrast depended on bargaining and seeking a consensus from different points of view.

Many continental systems were similar because of multi-party coalitions, or the need to get agreement in federal systems, or because of a consensual tradition of politics, and so continental politicians were already practiced in the EU style.

British civil servants also found a continental style that was based on clear legal rules and run by technical experts a contrast to the generalist British style.

Changes have occurred in British central government because of Europe:-

Prime Ministers

Prime Ministers have mostly liked to get involved in foreign policy and attend international summits but the EU has provided a new set of these, especially since power moved away from the Commission to European summits between leaders to determine the direction of policy.  This has taken up more of the Prime Ministers’ time and made them seem more Presidential.


Ministers began to spend more time in the European Councils with their fellow agriculture or transport or energy ministers from other countries than in the British Cabinet.  At Council meetings deals often have to be struck there and with Cabinets or Cabinet Committees only agreeing the opening negotiating position, and so Ministers developed some autonomy from the Whitehall system.  Pro-European Ministers might be happy to negotiate further integration while Eurosceptic ministers would push a British deregulatory line. Contacts have developed directly with ministries in other countries to build alliances that will push through favourable policies for Britain.

The Foreign Office

The Foreign Office had to take the lead in the negotiations leading to entry and had, of course, been used to bargaining with other countries throughout its history.  It took the lead in the early stages of British membership and became seen by Eurosceptics, certainly by Mrs Thatcher, as a pro-European ministry.  Its role has now largely been reduced to Britain’s role in the Common Foreign and Security Policy, though this area has become more important.

The Cabinet Office

The traditional British civil service method of coordinating policy across Whitehall has gradually been taken over by the Cabinet Office. A weekly meeting of the British Permanent Representative in Brussels and the Head of the European Secretariat of the Cabinet Office is held to review issues, with representatives of other ministries attending where necessary. After the single European Act and then after Maastricht more policy areas were dealt with at the European level.

The Permanent Representative in Brussels

The Permanent Representative in Brussels has become a key figure and has to both represent the British view in Europe and develop relationships with the key people in the European Parliament and the Commission. They have to discuss issues with other Permanent Representatives in order to clear the way for negotiations by ministers and keep in touch with interest groups.  It is essential that they have the confidence of Whitehall in all this but they are also able to explain the problems that domestic politics is causing to other people in Europe.

****This page is under review following the UK’s decision to leave the European Union and Brexit process****