April 8, 2013
The passing away of Britain’s first female Prime Minister and pre-eminent politician of the late 20th century has unsurprisingly been met with a barrage of comment and analysis. Her premiership helped to define the country for a decade and continued to shape her party for much longer still. But perhaps most interesting was her legacy in shaping Britain’s role in the European Union – and its impact on the course of the EU itself.
While Thatcher will firmly be remembered as the handbagging Prime Minister who demanded her money back from Brussels, her impact was far broader and more nuanced than that caricature. There is no doubt that she did more than any other British politician to bring Euroscepticism into the mainstream, helping to mitigate and then reverse decades of pro-European tradition in the Conservative Party.
Yet her speech to the College of Europe in Bruges, which spawned an eponymous think-tank and is credited with inspiring British Euroscepticsm to this day, seems today remarkably pragmatic and even pro-European. While far from a ringing endorsement of Franco-German plans for greater integration at the time, the speech compares favourably with David Cameron’s own recent Europe speech. And in stark contrast with current Conservative thinking, she emphasised that:
“Britain does not dream of some cosy, isolated existence on the fringes of the European Community. Our destiny is in Europe, as part of the Community. … The European Community is a practical means by which Europe can ensure the future prosperity and security of its people in a world in which there are many other powerful nations and groups of nations.”
Perhaps Thatcher’s biggest legacy to Europe, apart from securing the legendary British rebate and simultaneously condemning future budget negotiations to be a zero-sum game, was to drive forward the Single Market and enlargement – first to the south but subsequently also north and eastwards. These dual achievements, originally pursued as means to thwart what she considered to be the twin European threats of socialism and further integration (or ‘deepening’), have arguably become two of the EU’s greatest success stories.
How ironic therefore, to hear Mrs Thatcher’s successors today condemn and seek to reverse the natural consequences of these achievements – free movement for EU citizens from central and eastern Europe – from which the UK has roundly benefited.
The sad reality is that today’s anti-Europeans are disowning the more open, free market Europe – a more British Europe if you may – that Mrs Thatcher herself helped to create. In so doing, they risk jettisoning Britain’s ability to continue shaping it in the future.