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COMMENTS 

Immigration deserves a proper, open debate.

In a letter to the Financial Times, UCL's Professor of EU Law Piet Eeckhout outlines his bemusement at the current discourse on immigration in the UK.
Prof Piet Eeckhout
3 December 2014

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Starts: Dec 9, 2014 12:00:00 AM

The Democratic Disconnect

In the eurozone, the EU needs greater legitimacy at the national level not only to secure space for domestic politics but also to secure respect for social and economic commitments over time.
Prof. Albert Weale
24 November 2014 More...

Starts: Nov 24, 2014 12:00:00 AM

Europe: Six decades of strife and controversy for UK

It's groundhog day in Britain, where the European Union is concerned. The context changes, but the basic issues do not.
Sir Stephen Wall
18 November 2014 More...

Starts: Nov 18, 2014 12:00:00 AM

Margaret Thatcher: A snapshot from Bruges

Publication date: Apr 04, 2013 11:28 AM

Start: Mar 02, 2013 12:00 AM

S. Wall

Sir Stephen Wall
April 2013

It is 21 September 1988 and, once again, that ‘bloody woman’ is being criticised and cursed in the chanceries of Europe. The ‘bloody woman’ in question was Margaret Thatcher and, on the previous day, she had made a speech in Bruges on the subject of Britain and Europe.

As a Foreign Office Official dealing with the European Community, I had written the first draft of that speech. A few of my ‘and’s and ‘the’s survived into the final version. It is a speech which reverberates still, not least as the mating call of Tory Eurosceptics. What it said that so shocked mainstream European opinion at the time were two things: Firstly, that “the European Community is one manifestation of…European identity, but it is not the only one. We must never forget that east of the Iron Curtain, people who once enjoyed a full share of European culture, freedom and identity have been cut off from their roots. We shall always look on Warsaw, Prague and Budapest as great European cities”. Secondly: “We have not successfully rolled back the frontiers of the state in Britain, only to see them re-imposed at a European level with a European super-state exercising a new dominance from Brussels”.

Today, these sentiments are a commonplace. Then, they were considered an outrage. For many of Britain’s partners, the idea of enlargement of the Community was not the realisation of a decades-long ambition to restore democratic freedoms to the countries under Soviet tyranny, but a British plot, the fulfilment of the goal succinctly enunciated by Sir Humphrey in an early episode of ‘Yes Minister’: “The more members it has, the more arguments you can stir up, and the more futile and impotent it becomes”.

In fact, as in many things, Margaret Thatcher had clear, simple and forthright views, which she expressed in the same speech: “Only miles from here, in Belgium, lie the bodies of 120,000 British soldiers who died in the First World War. Had it not been for that willingness to fight and die, Europe would have been united long before now – but not in liberty, not in justice”. It was, in her view, an essential task of the European Community to “keep alive the flame of liberty in so many countries until the day of liberation”.

As to the “frontiers of the state”, Mrs Thatcher’s argument was that the Treaty of Rome, the European Community’s founding treaty, was itself intended as a “Charter for Economic Liberty” and, in characteristic fashion, she rattled off a list of all the areas in which the United Kingdom was ahead of her partners in the liberalisation which the Treaty required.

Despite all the heat generated by the speech, it was a statement of British European policy which could have been made by almost all of Mrs Thatcher’s predecessors from Macmillan onwards and which has been made, albeit less trenchantly, by every one of them since.

So what then happened? Well, within a year of the Bruges speech, Thatcher’s two most senior Cabinet colleagues, Foreign Secretary Geoffrey Howe and Chancellor Nigel Lawson had threatened to resign if she did not adopt a more positive attitude to British membership of the Exchange Rate Mechanism, the precursor of today’s single currency. She complied, but she moved Howe from the Foreign Office within weeks, and Lawson resigned some few months after that. As, in David Owen’s words, her antennae were increasingly capable only of broadcasting, but no longer receiving, so her attitude hardened: on economic and monetary union, on German reunification and, fatally, at home, on the Poll Tax. Europe was only indirectly the cause of her demise in that it precipitated Geoffrey Howe’s resignation from the Government, which in turn precipitated the leadership election which forced her resignation as Leader of the Conservative party and therefore as Prime Minister. Yet the combative “No, no, no” which precipitated Howe’s resignation was not a no to EMU but to the proposition put forward by Commission President Jacques Delors that the European Commission should be the executive of the European Union, answerable to the European Parliament, with Heads of Governments in the European Council reduced to the role of a Senate. Who today, anywhere in the European Union, would say she was wrong?

Betrayed, as she saw it, by her own Cabinet colleagues and Party, Margaret Thatcher, in ‘retirement’, set herself up as the focus of Tory backbench opposition to the Maastricht Treaty, negotiated by John Major, her successor. Opposition to everything to do with the European Community became the touchstone of Tory loyalty to the policies and ideals of the fallen leader. Now, with her death, perhaps the myth can be laid aside and the reality of her views, not invariably right, but usually rational, once again be perceived and pondered.