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Europe and Baroness Thatcher: the great divide

Gavin Hewitt
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Love-hate relationship:British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher with French President Jacques Chirac in Hotel Matignon in Paris in this 22 November, 1987 file photo.— PHOTO: AFP
Love-hate relationship:British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher with French President Jacques Chirac in Hotel Matignon in Paris in this 22 November, 1987 file photo.— PHOTO: AFP

Europe’s leaders both resented her and admired her. Francois Mitterrand said she had “the eyes of Caligula and the mouth of Marilyn Monroe”.

Another French President Jacques Chirac said, “She was one of the most feared figures on the international stage.”

He went on to say, “What made her great in my view was above all her conviction. ... She never doubted being in the right.”

The story was often told of her attending a summit in 1984, banging the table, and demanding, “I want my money back.”

She fought fiercely for a British rebate, but she actually said, “We are simply asking to have our own money back.”

There were, however, many sides to Margaret Thatcher’s relationship with Europe.

When the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, she was opposed to German reunification. Helmut Kohl, the German Chancellor at the time, recalls her saying, “We beat the Germans twice and now they’re back.”

Thatcher was a strong supporter of the single market in Europe and signed the Single European Act.

Her critics say that she saw the benefits of an open market but failed to appreciate that the management of that market would inevitably lead to handing over of some sovereignty. What she opposed was using the single market as a stepping stone to closer political union.

In her keynote speech on Europe, delivered in Bruges in September 1988, she said: “We have not successfully rolled back the frontiers of the state in Britain, only to see them reimposed

at a European level with a European superstate exercising new dominance from Brussels.”

That became the great divide.Many of Europe’s leaders were committed to closer integration. They believed in it, with the single market but a staging post.

Thatcher became viscerally opposed to handing over more sovereignty. In her book Statecraft , she described the European Union as “perhaps the greatest folly of the modern era”.

The former Czech President Vaclav Klaus — and an avowed Thatcherite — said, “Many of us will never forget her famous speech in Bruges, where she clearly said that the suppression of nation-states and the concentration of power in Brussels will destroy Europe.”

It was her rejection of further integration at an EU summit in Rome that prompted a rebellion and resignations within her own cabinet and led eventually to her downfall.

Divisions over Europe to this day have become embedded in the Tory party.

On the whole, Europe’s leaders have been warm with their tributes. French President Francois Hollande described her as “a great figure who left a profound mark on the history of her country”.

The President of the European Commission, Jose Manuel Barroso, described her as a “circumspect yet engaged player in the EU”.

But he also added, “Her legacy has done much to shape the United Kingdom as we know it today, including the special role of the U.K. in the European Union that endures to this day.”

Britain’s current ambivalence towards the EU is part of Thatcher’s legacy:

The totemic role of the rebate; the insistence on opt-outs; the belief in British exceptionalism; the profound unease at power slipping away to a bureaucracy in Brussels.

Britain has never committed to the idea of Europe.

It is indifferent to the dream of ever closer union. It fears the weakening of its own power as more and more decisions are taken at a European level in Brussels.

European officials recognise that it was Thatcher who shaped many of the U.K.’s instincts toward Europe.

They learned early that Lady Thatcher was a conviction politician.

She approached every meeting or summit with passionate intensity.

Europe’s leaders had built their project on compromise, on trade-offs, on bargaining. The first British woman Prime Minister came from a very different tradition; arguments were to be won. — © BBC News/Distributed by the New York Times Syndicate


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