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Thatcher’s legacy

April 13, 2013

BRITAIN, Europe and the world is divided over the life and legacy of Margaret Thatcher. Not me. If it were not for Thatcher, my job as a young reporter covering the European Union (or the European Economic Community as it was called) would have been a long stretch of yawn-inducing hard labour.

For journalists of all ages and nationalities, Thatcher brought oomph and glamour to the European beat. She loomed large in my life. I was starting off as a young, inexperienced reporter covering the EEC when Thatcher walked into No 10 Downing Street as the newly elected British prime minister. Thatcher made my first few years as a journalist in Brussels, interesting and exciting.

Sure I worked hard. Covering the European saga as many EU observers know only too well can be a challenge. Certainly, there are moments of suspense, tension, acrimony and drama. But, often in those days even more than now, it was a question of understanding dense technical details, listening to tedious men pontificate and running around trying to get a few good quotes that would make a story readable.

It was not easy. The EEC was even more Byzantine than modern-day EU; European decision-making was even more opaque, the stories much less exciting. I liked the European narrative — old foes coming together to create a peaceful and prosperous continent, one where there would be no more wars. But the daily grind of covering the intricacies of European integration was not for the faint-hearted.

On paper, Europe was about unity and harmony. In reality, all the leaders and their deputies appeared to be constantly bickering. I tried desperately to make sense of it all. Sometimes, the struggle was just too much and the stories we wrote were weak, rambling and without a core. Our hearts were just not in it. It was a time of European milk and butter mountains, huge farm subsidies, rows over arcane questions.

Yes, some of the leaders were impressive: French president François Mitterrrand, German chancellor Helmut Kohl and European Commission president Jacques Delors stood tall and proud. But in the early 1980s, the talk was about “euro sclerosis” and petty European problems. The European single market, the single currency and enlargement only came later.

And then Thatcher burst onto the European scene. I am sure she wore all kinds of different colours but as I remember it, she was always wearing that beautiful dark blue suit and carrying that iconic rigid handbag. Thatcher quite literally woke me up. First, because she was a woman — a feisty, tough-talking woman — in a world of men in grey suits.

But also, of course, because she knew what she wanted. At one of her first European summits, she called for the UK’s contributions to the EEC to be adjusted, warning that otherwise she would withhold VAT payments. “I want my money back!” she exclaimed while we struggled to note down everything she said. This tussle lasted four years, but she eventually won the British budget rebate. She passionately fought and won a number of battles against what she saw as the excessive powers of Brussels.

Ever the pragmatist when it came to Europe, Thatcher was influential in securing the Single European Act in 1986, which set a deadline of 1992 for the full completion of the single market. By 1988, however, Thatcher was making clear that Britain did not want further political integration. In a landmark speech made in Bruges, she insisted: “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.”

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. It was her rejection of further integration at an EU summit in Rome that prompted a rebellion and resignations of the pro-Europe members of her cabinet and led eventually to her downfall.

Intriguingly, she opposed German re-unification and — not surprisingly — was often at loggerheads with Kohl, a fact recognised in a recent interview by the former chancellor. “It is true — Margaret Thatcher was difficult, just as our relationship was difficult,” Kohl, 83, said. “Margaret and I simply never managed to build a trusting and warm relationship.” Thatcher’s wariness towards Europe still persisted in British attitudes towards the EU today, he said.

Many in the former communist countries of Eastern and Central Europe have nothing but praise for Thatcher who encouraged the EU to embrace the newly democratic countries and bring them back into the European family. Other European leaders both resented her and admired her. François Mitterrand famously 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.”

Thatcher’s eurosceptic policies are reflected in Britain’s current ambivalence towards the EU. London’s insistence on opt-outs, the belief in British exceptionalism, the profound unease at power slipping away to a bureaucracy in Brussels date back to Thatcher and her love-hate approach towards Europe.

“No. No. No,” Thatcher famously told the British parliament on Oct 30, 1990 after Delors called for the European Parliament to be the democratic body of the community, the commission to be the executive and the Council of Ministers to be the senate. Listen closely and if the wind is blowing in the right direction, you can hear David Cameron mouthing the same refrain.

The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Brussels.