European Movement UK

Britain's future is with Europe! Join the debate and put your opinion forward!

by Robert Buckland MP

Joint Secretary of the 1922 Committee of Conservative Backbenchers and Co-Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on the EU.

Margaret Thatcher was not a political leader who was much inclined to looking back, but her death last month has allowed us a little time to reflect upon her leadership and legacy. Much has already been written about her impact on Britain and a fair amount too on the wider world, but the true extent of her legacy to Europe and Germany bears a closer look.

If you were to ask the average voter whether Lady Thatcher was pro or anti European, then I suspect many of those questioned would respond in the latter. The vivid image of Lady Thatcher swinging her proverbial handbag in the general direction of Eurocrats such as Jacques Delors seems to sum up, for some, her approach towards Europe. However, as was the case with many of her policies, this image does not do justice to the nuances of her position towards Europe over the years.

In 1975, as the newly-elected Leader of the Opposition, Mrs. Thatcher was busy playing a significant role in campaigning for the United Kingdom to remain part of the then European Community. An abiding memory of that campaign is a jumper she wore, made up of the flags of the then member states of the EEC. Moving forward thirteen years to her Bruges speech in September 1988, Lady Thatcher may have sallied forth about the dangers of a supposed European super-state but she also robustly made the case for Britain’s future within Europe. Notably, she said that “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.”

European affairs during the first four or five years of her premiership were dominated by the question of the British rebate, which was finally resolved at the Fontainebleau European Summit of 1984. The Lady’s handbag and the repeated cry of “we want our money” back are now remembered by many as the first stirrings of a latent euroscepticism, but the reality was somewhat different. In truth, her position was more akin to that of De Gaulle’s at the time of the Luxembourg Compromise in the mid 1960’s; in other words, a strong leader who was asserting a national interest whilst maintaining a belief in membership of the developing institutions of Europe.

Moving forward only a couple of years, we come to her greatest European legacy: the creation of the Single Market. This concept, which largely unites the modern Conservative Party, is the jewel in the crown of our EU membership. Without her typically robust support for the Single Market and the signing of the Single European Act, we would not have seen its creation. At the heart of Lady Thatcher’s straightforward views was a belief in free trade and open markets; her support for the Single Market did more to make this a reality than any other decision.

However, if I were to identify her most troubled legacy on the global stage then I would look no further than her hostility to German reunification. Looking back from today’s perspective, such opposition seems strangely quixotic. Today’s UK/German relationship is extremely positive. The Prime Minister’s recent family visit to the German Chancellor’s personal residence at Meseberg is a reflection of the growing strength of his relationship with the German Government and our shared agenda of free trade and open markets. At varying levels, British Conservatives are busy forging new relationships with our German colleagues. However, there was a time where our Prime Minister was privately committed to stopping the reunification of Germany and personally identified her own greatest policy failing as having not achieved this.

The long shadows cast by the Second World War had a huge effect upon Mrs Thatcher’s generation, which allows us to have a greater understanding of her concerns. The Cold War had helped drive the cause of unity in Western Europe as a bulwark against Soviet power. Within only a few months in 1989, all this changed, creating a new political landscape. She and other politicians can be forgiven for not having been able to forge a new policy in such a short space of time. As is so often the case in international politics, her poor relations with the German Chancellor, Helmut Kohl, proved to be a further obstacle to Anglo-German relations.

I believe that Britain’s initial reluctance to embrace the opportunities created by German reunification was a mistake. As we have seen over the last two decades, Germany’s decision to reunite was a resounding success. The Federal Republic is the driving force of a peaceful EU and its powerful economy has played a key role in spreading prosperity across Europe. Germany plays a positive role on the global stage and is one of our most important trading partners. It is increasingly willing to play a role with other Western nations to deal with conflicts in the Sahel, for example. Without a strong Germany at its heart, Europe would not be the world power that it is.

What of Franco-German relations? For much of the past sixty years, the strength of the Franco-German alliance has been seen to be driving force behind greater European integration. Although we should not underestimate the institutional and political will that drives this partnership, the situation is undeniably evolving. France’s Socialist administration is making decisions that are causing real concern in Germany, and which are creating new opportunities for different coalitions of interest to be created within the EU. The Anglo-German agenda on free trade and open markets are examples of this fresh approach.

More than twenty years have passed since German reunification, but it took far too long for Britain to come to terms with the changed politics of Europe. Pinning this failure upon the shoulders of one leader, however great and notable, may be somewhat unfair, but the events of 1990 were seminal and she, to adopt a later John Major slogan about Europe, was at the heart of things.

My hope is that if we are to take anything from Lady Thatcher’s legacy with regards to Europe, we should look at the earlier part of her rule when she was more inclined to support, not obstruct; to lead, not to follow; and, to cooperate, not quarrel. Lady Thatcher was not simply a Eurosceptic, even if her dislike of the EU and its institutions, feigned or real, did grow in later years. She saw the virtue in the “family of nations” of Europe and so should we. The EU is in need of great reform and change, but achieving that will only come about if we resume our positive role at the head of the table and are clear that we are in the EU to stay.

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