Margaret Thatcher

Margaret Thatcher in Europe

Life and Work of Margaret Thatcher (1925-)

The Concise Encyclopedia of the European Union describes margaret thatcher (1925-) in the following terms: [1] Margaret Thatcher and Charles de Gaulle share the distinction of being the two most redoubtable supporters of the sovereign state and most adamant opponents of supranationalism in the EC’s brief history. Having defeated Edward Heath to lead the Conservative Party in 1975, Thatcher became prime minister in 1979 and promptly engaged the Community in battle over the size of the British contribution to the budget. Her demand ‘Give us our money back’ reflected her sense of injustice that the UK was the second biggest net contributor after Germany, while being far from the second richest member state. To Europeans brought up to view the Community’s own resources as sacrosanct, her combative language struck a jarring note. For nearly five years they accused her of a commercial attitude unworthy of the Community’s high purpose, but in 1984 President François Mitterrand finally settled the issue at Fontainebleau with the British rebate.

A slayer of dragons (including her militant union opponents in the UK and the Argentinian junta of General Galtieri in the 1982 Falklands War), Thatcher had no patience with the bureaucratic procedures and compromise deals with which coalition European politicians were at ease. Yet vigorously though she swung her handbag, she made little progress in resisting European integration. She had a formidable opponent in the Commission president Jacques Delors, as de Gaulle had had in Walter Hallstein. Unlike de Gaulle, however, she had no significant European political allies, for her language was abrasive and Helmut Kohl and Mitterrand were as determined as Delors to press on with federation.

Despite her reservations about the direction Europe was taking, Thatcherinitiated one of the EU’s main positive achievements – the single marketprogramme, designed by a British commissioner, Lord Cockfield. The Single European Act of 1986, which gave force to the single market, greatly increased the scope of qualified majority voting. It was not easy to foresee that the volume of intrusive legislation which would follow, in the name of harmonisationof standards, would go far beyond the minimum necessary for the creation of the internal market. Still less was it predictable that a broader precedent was being set for replacing unanimity (that is, the sovereign right of veto) by majority voting – an outcome which Thatcher later deplored.

Over the years she made some inroads on the costly Common Agricultural Policy, without obtaining the radical reform she sought. As for EMU, after holding out initially against British participation in the ERM, she agreed in 1989, under the threat of cabinet resignations, to enter ‘when the conditions were right’. The following year she was forced by colleagues against her better judgment to enter at what proved to be an unsustainable exchange rate. Her refusal to sign the Social Charter was less controversial, but in 1990 she fell from power, ousted through divisions in her own party caused in large part by dissent over her handling of European issues.

Thatcher was resented by Europhiles from the outset. Her attachment to British parliamentary democracy they saw as ‘Little Englanderism’. Her labour market reforms and her assessment that NATO and the American alliance were the bedrock of security struck them as clinging to Anglo-Saxon, as opposed to European, attitudes. When her Bruges speech of 1988 laid out her vision of voluntary co-operation between sovereign nations rather than direction by supranational European institutions, her opponents replied by disparaging the very idea of sovereignty. A robust defender of the free market, her suspicion of Delors was enhanced by his rapturous reception at the British Trades Union Congress of 1988.

To a Europe attuned to welfare and the social market economy her doctrines sounded unfeeling. Nevertheless, even her detractors accept that the CAPneeds comprehensive reform; that the EU suffers from a democratic deficit; that EMU is fraught with difficulties; and that the UK’s restored economic strength is in large measure due to her influence. She can doubtless be faulted for her antipathy to German reunification and her choice of a tone which would win her few Continental friends, but she remains a memorable witness to uncomfortable truths in the annals of the EU.

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Notas y References

  1. Based on the book “A Concise Encyclopedia of the European Union from Aachen to Zollverein”, by Rodney Leach (Profile Books; London)

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