Tuesday, 3 June 2014

Thatcher and Europe

Margaret Thatcher (1925-2013) was the Conservative British Prime Minister from 1979 to 1990. She saw “Brussels” as having excessive power…

In 1980, she called for the UK's contributions to the EEC to be adjusted: "I want my money back!" she exclaimed. She did get a rebate, but relations with European partners became strained after that.

Mrs Thatcher, having signed the 1986 Single European Act, commented: "Advantages will indeed flow from that achievement well into the future."

In her controversial 1988 "Bruges speech", Mrs Thatcher declared: "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".

In October 1990, Mrs Thatcher agreed to join the ERM. That same year, Jacques Delors, the president of the European Commission, had proposed a reform of EU institutions. Thatcher, fearing more interference by Brussels, responded at the end of October by saying to the House of Commons: "No. No. No." Within a few weeks, her anti-EU views led her party to force her to resign.

In 2002, Thatcher wrote: "Most of the problems the world has faced have come from mainland Europe, and the solutions from outside it."


The information below is adapted from on an essay on Margaret Thatcher by Florian Georges, first-year student at the UBP in Clermont-Ferrand.

Margaret Thatcher was the Conservative Prime Minister of the UK from 1979 to 1990. 25 years after her resignation, she remains a controversial figure. Most of the quotes below, which justify her views on Europe, are taken from her memoirs: The Downing Street Years.

From 1979 to 1984, Thatcher defended British interests within the EC, which led to the dispute over the EC budget. Britain did not benefit from Common Agricultural Policy aid as much as the other EC members and so Thatcher believed Britain's contribution to the EC budget was unfairly high. "I want my money back!" she declared at the Dublin summit in 1979. She justified her view by saying: "I cannot play Sister Bountiful to the Community while my own electorate are being asked to forego improvements in the fields of health, education, welfare and the rest". This led to the first opposition between Thatcher and the European Community which was resolved in 1984 at the Fontainebleau summit (she got her rebate). This was good news for Britain, as it was going through a recession and Thatcher had to cut costs (plus cut public spending, privatize, and fight the trade unions). The "Iron Lady" was uncompromising: "I was fighting for [our contribution] for five years, and I had the hard intent to obtain a fair and lasting system". Her anti-Brussels stance was popular in the UK. Her vision of how the European budget should be raised was not the same as that of the UK’s European partners; she considered that a country's prosperity should be taken into account in determining its net contribution and that the EC needed "an ordered financial framework" (i.e. she wanted the UK to contribute less to and benefit more from EC money). This displeased France and Germany (who benefited largely from the CAP) and the Southern countries (who received a lot of funds). Tensions became so great that Papandreou, the Greek Prime Minister, declared in 1984 that it would be a relief if Britain left the European Community...

From 1984 to 1989, once the conflicts over the budget were resolved (in the UK’s favour), Thatcher began to promote her vision of Europe, wanting to give new directions for the Community. Thatcher described herself as an "unconditional advocate of free enterprise capitalism", was a strong supporter of a confederalist "Europe des patries" (her words) which promoted to free enterprise and the Common market. She believed that "Great Britain will be able to play a first place positive role" in Europe. Her views were summed up in a speech she gave in March 1984 : “I don't want to paper over the cracks. I want to get rid of the cracks. I want to rebuild the foundations. [...] I want to solve [the problems we are confronted with], so that we can set about building the Community of the future, a Community striving for freer trade, breaking down the barriers in Europe and the world to the free flow of goods, capital and services;  working together to make Europe the home of the industries of tomorrow - seizing the initiative on world problems, not reacting wearily to them; forging political links across the European divide and so creating a more hopeful relationship between East and West; using its influence as a vital area of stability and democracy to strengthen democracy across the world. That is my vision. I am impatient to make it a reality.” Britain supported the European Single market because it promoted the free market and free enterprise. The PM said: "we must have a European Single Market with the minimum of regulations, a Europe of enterprise. Europe must not be protectionist". 

The arrival of the French Socialist Jacques Delors as President of the European Commission in 1985 led to conflict with Thatcher. She saw Europe as an inter-governmental union of independent sovereign states whereas Delors called for a federal Europe. He wanted to develop collective bargaining (i.e. trade unions should negotiate work conditions), guarantee social rights for European employees, and legislate more at a European level. He was also for tax harmonisation and he wanted to double the structural funds (that is, spending on Community regional and social policy). Delors believed that Europe should be " much more than the creation of an internal market abolishing barriers to the free movement of goods, services, and investment. In my opinion, social dialogue and collective bargaining are essential pillars of our democratic society.”

In response to the Delors proposals, Margaret Thatcher gave her controversial Bruges speech on the 20th September 1988 in which she advocated decentralization, the end of state-controlled economies ("we have not successfully rolled back the frontiers of the State in Britain to see them reimposed at a European level"), budgetary discipline, reforming "policies which are wrong or ineffective", suppressing the CAP ("unwieldy, inefficient, and grossly expensive") so as to free resources for other priorities such as the European Regional Development Fund, encourage deregulation and the Single Market (she was convinced that an internal market without barriers would provide jobs in Britain in particular in the finance services and insurance), take a more active role in NATO and better cooperation over a European foreign policy.

The Bruges Group was created in February 1989 to support principles laid down by the Prime Minister in her speech. However, many Conservatives began to attack Thatcher's attitude. Edward Heath and Michael Heseltine, amongst others, believed Britain would be left behind if it continued to oppose the EC. Thatcher's atlanticism did not help matters (she defended Reagan’s Strategic Defence Initiative (SDI), cf. also the 1986 Westland Affair): "Any stable European balance of power will require the more or less permanent presence of the United States in Europe" she said.

Delors publicly criticized what the British government was doing in the United Kingdom, and Thatcher wrote: "I had to recognize that we were saddled with Mr Delors as President of the Commission". She criticized Delors's project for a European Social Charter: "The Social Charter was quite simply a socialist charter, devised by socialists in the Commission and favoured predominantly by socialist member states.”

Thatcher's government came to an end in 1989-1990, marked by total opposition between Thatcher and her European counterparts. As outlined in the 1989 Delors report, European political union would become all the more necessary after the breakup of the USSR and the reunification of Germany, a view shared by the new American President George Bush Sr. Bush considered a strong European government necessary for efficient European-wide economic, fiscal, and social legislation. Thatcher was convinced that "the agenda in Europe began to take an increasingly unwelcome shape." She declared: "No, no, no!" in reaction to Delors's proposals. Her failure to adapt to the changing circumstances was the cause of her downfall.

Thatcher's attitude was definitely Eurosceptic. Her autobiography is full of criticism of Europe:

“Against the notable gains constituted by the securing of Britain’s budget rebate and progress towards a real Common Market had to be set a more powerful Commission ambitious for power, an inclination towards bureaucratic rather than market solutions to economic problems and the re-emergence of a Franco-German axis with its own covert federalist and protectionist agenda. As yet, however, the full implications of all this were unclear — even to me, distrustful as I always was of that un-British combination of high-flown rhetoric and pork-barrel politics which passed for European statesmanship.”

“I had by now heard about as much of the European ‘ideal’ as I could take. In the name of this ideal, waste, corruption and abuse of power were reaching levels which no one who supported, as I had done, entry to the European Economic Community could have foreseen.”

“In three years the European Community had gone from practical discussions about restoring order to the Community’s finances to grandiose schemes of monetary and political union with firm timetables but no agreed substance - all without open, principled public debate on these questions either nationally or in European fora.”

Thatcher became more and more isolated, in particular since the Bruges speech which divide even the Conservatives. It is not because everybody disagreed with her that she thought she was wrong. She stated that: “Isolated I might be in the European Community - but taking the wider perspective, the federalists were the real isolationists, clinging grimly to a half-Europe when Europe as a whole was being liberated; toying with protectionism when truly global markets were emerging; obsessed with schemes of centralization when the greatest attempt at centralization - the Soviet Union - was on the point of collapse. If there was ever an idea whose time had come and gone it was surely that of the artificial mega-state.”

But her refusal to adapt to changes or even to any compromises led to the resignation of Geoffrey Howe, the Deputy Prime Minister and Thatcher’s longest-serving Cabinet Minister in November 1990. He resigned because of Thatcher's strong opposition to the Exchange Rate Mechanism (ERM), though numerous Cabinet Ministers were in favour. According to him: "The Prime Minister’s attitude towards Europe is running increasingly serious risks for the future of the nation. It risks minimising our influence and maximising our chances of being once again shut out." It is true that by remaining outside the ERM Britain was seriously damaging her chances of being able to play a constructive role in discussions.”

Thatcher resigned on 22 November 1990. John Major, one of Thatcher's protégés, was chosen to replace her. He tried patch up relations with the EC, but the hostile relations that had prevailed under Thatcher quickly came back, and a combination of events in the EC and domestic political events led to an effective isolation and to a total lack of influence by the end of Major's premiership.

It is with the arrival of New Labour to power in 1997 that relations started to improve; Tony Blair, a self-declared Europhile, had a more constructive approach regarding Britain’s place in Europe.

Recommended reading: An awkward partner by Stephen George

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