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Thatcher Warned Us to Go Slow on European Integration. Too Bad We Didn’t Listen

This November will mark 30 years since former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher left office. After she had narrowly failed to secure an outright win in a 1990 leadership contest triggered by a challenge from Michael Heseltine, her former defense secretary, the majority of Thatcher’s Conservative cabinet colleagues withdrew their support and forced her departure following what she described as “eleven-and-a-half wonderful years.

For Thatcher, the “coup,” as she referred to the events of 1990, had been unexpected. But as journalist Charles Moore explains in the third and final volume of his authorized Thatcher biography, Herself Alone (2019), the writing had been on the wall for some time. Thatcher’s style, which some considered abrasive, had turned senior figures against her. And many younger party members believed that if the party were to win a fourth consecutive election victory, in 1991 or 1992, it should be under a new standard-bearer (who turned out to be John Major).

An important underlying factor was the long-standing policy conflict regarding the European Community (or the EC as the European Union was then known), which pitted Thatcher against many in her own government, as well as against continental European leaders and George H. W. Bush’s White House. She was perceived as a “Cold Warrior” who was overly cautious in regard to the future of Europe, especially the project of European political and economic integration.

To some modern observers, that criticism of Thatcher remains apt. In a recently published book on international relations authored by former Swedish Prime Minister Carl Bildt, The Age of Disorder (Den nya oredans tid, 2019), Thatcher’s reluctance to endorse a speedy German reunification is attributed to her obsolete anxieties regarding “the dangers of a strong Germany.”

Moore’s latest volume, which focuses extensively on Thatcher’s views about Europe, shows her in a more nuanced light. In some ways, in fact, she was actually ahead of her time. And some of the current problems facing Europe, and the West more generally, might have been mitigated had her opinions been given a more generous audience.

* * *

It is clear from Moore’s account that Thatcher did oppose—“dread” is perhaps not too strong a word—a united Germany becoming the dominant European power. After the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989, she apparently was “appalled to see pictures of Bundestag [members] singing Deutschland über alles, which she described as ‘a dagger in my heart.’” Nevertheless, Moore writes, her primary concern lay not with the Germans themselves, but with the Soviet Union (which did not fully expire until 1991) and the future of East–West relations.

Thatcher had been the first major western political leader to engage Mikhail Gorbachev. She supported his reforms of the Soviet state, and they built a trusting relationship that proved crucial to the winding down of the Cold War. When the wall fell, she worried that an overly swift reunification of Germany would be seen as a humiliation by Soviet hardliners, who might then undermine Gorbachev. (“I fear,” she said, “that he will feel isolated if all the reunification process goes the West’s way.”) As history shows, these were hardly idle fears.

The Fall of the Berlin Wall, 1989

Thatcher also rightly believed that the post-Soviet era would be more geopolitically complex and uncertain than the Cold War. While others rhapsodized about the possibility of a world without serious conflict, she argued that it was important to establish frameworks for co-operation beyond Europe; and, in Moore’s terms, “to turn the Soviet Union into a co-worker for European peace rather than an eternal opponent.” In line with this conciliatory approach, she advocated for a transition period that would precede German reunification, and for involving the Soviets in a discussion over Germany’s future, together with the other “Four Powers,” which had been responsible for Berlin since 1945. These ideas, however, were rejected, in part because German reunification was seen as “a critical step to delivering Bush’s vision of a Europe ‘whole and free.’” Reunification took place in October 1990, shortly before Thatcher stepped down.

According to Moore, the end of the division of Germany was a factor in the attempted coup against Gorbachev in 1991. He also points out that one of the Russians who became convinced that his country had been humiliated by the West during this period was none other than Vladimir Putin, then serving as a KGB officer in East Germany.

And so it is somewhat ironic that Thatcher is remembered by her critics as an inflexible Cold Warrior: At this critical juncture, she had argued for being more sensitive—not less—to the perspective of Russians. Had her advice been heeded, the Russians might have felt less slighted, and the last 30 years of East-West relations might have unfolded differently.

Thatcher’s arguments and warnings over the issue of European integration were similarly pushed aside. And, as with the USSR, the nature of Thatcher’s objections have been mischaracterized. In a major speech about the future of Europe, delivered in Bruges on September 20th, 1988, she “began with a grand historical sweep, taking in the Romans, Magna Carta, the Glorious revolution and much more, all designed to show that Britain was part of European civilization.” Thatcher also made it clear that “Britain wanted no ‘cosy, isolated existence’ on the fringes: ‘Our destiny is in Europe, as part of the Community.’”

What Thatcher did oppose was the project of “ever-closer union,” and the resulting weakening of the influence of nation states. She believed that Europe should not be a centralizing power that incubated supranational institutions—particularly as this model of centralization was just then in the throes of spectacular failure within the Soviet Union. Instead, as she outlined in a speech at The Hague on May 15th, 1992, she favored a looser form of European co-operation, by which states retained their sovereign freedoms—including control of their borders. This, she believed, would accommodate the political and cultural diversity of Europe, including the eastern European countries that, she hoped, would be offered full EC membership. As Moore notes, in fact, she was one of the few prominent European politicians of the 1980s who had recognized that cities such as Warsaw, Prague and Budapest were very much European cities that had been cut off from their historical and cultural roots.

In her speech at The Hague, as Moore summarizes it, “she prophesied that large-scale immigration caused by free movement would cause ‘ethnic conflict,’ and bring about the rise of extremist parties, that there would be ‘national resentment’ because of one-size-fits-all financial and economic policies under a single currency, and that a more centralized EC would not be able to work with the influx of new member states from the former Eastern Bloc.”

This obviously has specific relevance to Brexit and the political forces that led to it (though Thatcher herself, who died in 2013, never lived to see any of this play out). More generally, the common thread is that Thatcher understood the pattern of reaction and counterreaction that governs human affairs, including affairs of state. She stuck by the hard lessons of history even as others around her surrendered giddily to the fin de siècle euphoria that accompanied the end of the Cold War.

It must be conceded that her concerns about counterreaction—both within Russia, and among Europeans who did not want to lose their national cultures and political prerogatives—proved at least somewhat prophetic. The same goes for her warning of “the emergence of a whole new international political class,” ignoring people’s shared instincts and traditions. As discussed by others—including the journalist Douglas Murray in his 2017 book, The Strange Death of Europe: Immigration, Identity, Islam—this comprises a major issue in the European Union to this day. What a shame that when Thatcher warned us of its rise, she was, to quote Moore’s title, herself alone.

 

Johan Wennström, PhD (Political Science), works at the Research Institute of Industrial Economics in Stockholm. You can follow him on Twitter at @johanwennstrom.

Featured Image: Margaret Thatcher reviewing the Royal Bermuda Regiment in early 1990, shortly before stepping down as British Prime Minister. 

Comments

  1. A very good article, but debatable in some of its conclusions. While Mrs. Thatcher was right to warn against too-rapid executive “top-down” European integration, delaying German reunification could have proved disastrous. He who hesitates can indeed be lost and striking while the iron is hot is often the best policy. 1990 was a unique window of opportunity which the West and its allies rightly grasped. The author also repeats the old mistake of other commenters in assuming that appeasing Putin and his like would somehow placate them. Similar arguments have been made regarding Stalin and Ho Chi Minh and Castro and Pol Pot etc. etc. All idealised as Jeffersonian democrats until they were traumatised by the nasty Americans! And many people still believe such nonesense.

  2. and that a more centralized EC would not be able to work with the influx of new member states from the former Eastern Bloc.”

    Since it led to a vast influx of Polish women into the UK with a concomitant % improvement to the average appearance of the female population, she obviously missed that one.

    Trigger Warning: Privileged Cis-Male about to acknowledge female beauty.

    It’s true. Visit Poland and you’ll be hit by the beauty of the women.

  3. Agree!

    And so it is somewhat ironic that Thatcher is remembered by her critics as an inflexible Cold Warrior: At this critical juncture, she had argued for being more sensitive—not less—to the perspective of Russians. Had her advice been heeded, the Russians might have felt less slighted, and the last 30 years of East-West relations might have unfolded differently.

    This paragraph is a typical example of a wishful thinking. Russia would still return to a totalitarian regime, regardless of any Western actions. This is an internal problem of Russian national mentality.
    I would add We learn from history that we do not learn from history.

  4. The author mentions Putin just once:

    The point being that many Russians felt humiliated - the author makes it clear that Thatcher was trying to avoid perceptions causing feelings of humiliation amongst Russians.
    The German humiliation after WW1 created the mood in Germany that carried the nationalist Hitler into power.
    The Russian humiliation after the Cold War created the mood in Russia that carried the nationalist Putin into power.
    Hitler and Putin were both elected by populations that reacted to events they felt humiliated by by becoming more nationalistic.

  5. Let me object.
    Russia has not experienced the humiliation of a national catastrophe and occupation.
    Imagine Germany after the Second World War with a functioning Gestapo. What would be the way of Germany?
    The KGB, as it was, remained in power.
    This is the most obvious argument. The problem has deeper roots in the history of Russia with its centuries-old slavery succeeded by seventy years of communist dictatorship.
    From my point of view, it is naive to assume that soft power can change the vector of development of this country. This is actually not a vector. This is a movement in a circle - totalitarianism, a dead end, internal unrest and totalitarianism in an outwardly new form.
    Finally, looking at Germany today, I see strange analogies with Germany of the Kaiser and Hitler, while Douglas MacArthur was a political genius when he decided that Emperor Hirohito should remain on the imperial throne.
    We have a strange habit of underestimating the deep patterns that underlie the existence of a nation. As a result, we see formal democracy and voting as a progress, and each time we are shocked by the result of this progress, whether in Russia or in Iraq. It seems to me that the slow path of society transformation (not modernization), chosen by the Saudis, has a much greater chance of success.

  6. That nationalism, or more accurately jingoism, pre-dates WWI as Germans saw having an empire equivalent to Britain’s as its manifest destiny. Anything less was an national humiliation. So too does its anti-Semitism pre-date the war.

    It was Germany’s collapse in 1918 with mass demonstrations and its navy’s sailors mutinying rather than fight Britain’s fleet in a mad and suicidal last hurrah in late October. This was followed by soldier desertions. These were the final straws, but truth be told Germany could no longer sustain the fight in both manpower and material, especially with US troops and supplies arriving at the front. In Sept 1918, General Erich Ludendorf, hero of the Eastern Front, informed the Kaiser that the situation was hopeless and armistice negotiations needed to be started. Ludendorf was very wily, and he fabricated the myth of Germany’s soldiers being stabbed in the back. For many Germans who saw their imperial ambitions dashed, Ludendorf’s claim was readily accepted.

    Let’s not ignore Germany had earlier enacted a very punitive peace on Russia in March 1918. The Treaty of Brest-Litovsk was a massive land grab by Berlin, one that took 25% of Russia’s population, 25% of its industry, and 90% of its coal mines. When the Germans later complained about Versailles, they were reminded of the terms it imposed months earlier. Brest-Litovsk was also scrapped as a condition of Versailles, which was taken as a great insult by the Germans.

  7. ‘…An important underlying factor was the long-standing policy conflict regarding the European Community (or the EC as the European Union was then known), which pitted Thatcher against many in her own government, as well as against continental European leaders and George H. W. Bush’s White House…’

    This is a good place to mention that in the early 1990s, GHW Bush and other western leaders were against NATO’s eastward expansion, a policy that was unwisely overturned by Bill Clinton:

    nsarchive.gwu.edu

    NATO Expansion: What Gorbachev Heard

    Declassified documents show security assurances against NATO expansion to Soviet leaders from Baker, Bush, Genscher, Kohl, Gates, Mitterrand, Thatcher, Hurd, Major, and Woerner

    Washington D.C., December 12, 2017 – U.S. Secretary of State James Baker’s famous “not one inch eastward” assurance about NATO expansion in his meeting with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev on February 9, 1990, was part of a cascade of assurances about Soviet security given by Western leaders to Gorbachev and other Soviet officials throughout the process of German unification in 1990 and on into 1991, according to declassified U.S., Soviet, German, British and French documents posted today by the National Security Archive at George Washington University (http://nsarchive.gwu.edu).

    The documents show that multiple national leaders were considering and rejecting Central and Eastern European membership in NATO as of early 1990 and through 1991, that discussions of NATO in the context of German unification negotiations in 1990 were not at all narrowly limited to the status of East German territory, and that subsequent Soviet and Russian complaints about being misled about NATO expansion were founded in written contemporaneous memcons and telcons at the highest levels.

    The documents reinforce former CIA Director Robert Gates’s criticism of “pressing ahead with expansion of NATO eastward [in the 1990s], when Gorbachev and others were led to believe that wouldn’t happen.”

    Bottom Line: Russia has a legitimate grievance here.

  8. As a sixty-five year old American, one of my great regrets is that we never had a Margaret Thatcher to vote for. You want your first woman president? If only we could have had her decades ago.

  9. “The policy the allies adopted post WW2 was the complete reverse of the policy post WW1, after WW1 it was the punishment of Versailles, post WW2 it was the reconciliation of the Marshall Plan,…”

    Dividing Germany in two under the auspices of occupying forces isn’t punishment? The East Germans especially may have preferred the Versailles terms again. The verdicts are Nuremberg were not humiliating and punishment for the guilty. Nazi Germany is considered the most reviled government in history.

  10. An excellent article, and one that doesn’t truck in clichés about Thatcher. What she wanted was what any sensible person wanted in 1990, a free Europe full of peacefully cooperating democratic nation-states. What she didn’t want but feared was what transpired, a top-heavy, antidemocratic EU system, run by a self-selected and self-perpetuating elite, with a monetary straightjacket, too much forced liberalization of borders and trade, and an overly powerful Germany.

    I remember Thatcher’s visceral reaction to German reunification in 1990, and it was widely shared, although it was considered bad form to say it in public the way she did. French president Mitterand also had the same reaction, even more strongly, but he kept his objections out of public discourse. They were delivered in private. Instead, the new EU elite started to blame “nationalism” for the world wars. Was it Swedish nationalism maybe? Seriously. The right words are imperialism and militarism, not nationalism. It was letting Germany and its minions and allies from the world wars too easily off the hook.

    It’s ironic that Thatcher understood that an overly fast German reunification, without Russian input (or input from any of the central/eastern European countries), would undermine the more liberal and pro-Western figures in those countries. And lo and behold! Perhaps nothing could have stopped the Putin-esque revanche after the 1997-99 humiliation (Russian bankruptcy, NATO expansion, the defeat of Serbia). But who can say Thatcher was wrong?

  11. I remember Thatcher as a skilled, thoughtful and successful leader who was, I believe, on a par with Winston Churchill. Unlike most modern politicians, who seem to spend 85% of their time on their own re-election campaigns, Thatcher could multi-task. Like all leaders, she fought her own political battles AND, as Wennström artfully describes, she understood the Cold War and the strengths, weaknesses, threats and opportunities created by its end AND she oversaw the dismantling of many of the failed socialist experiments in her own country. Quite a résumé, I think.

  12. I’m uncertain they became more nationalistic/jingoistic. There’s the argument that from the mid 19th century to mid 20th century much of Europe was extremely jingoistic, far more so than presently, which influences our appraisal - Hartley’s “the past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” (I disagree with the historians who state it began with 1848’s Spring of Nations. I think it was there far longer, and it was industrialisation that made it easier and less expensive per soldier to raise large and lethal armies as well as spread jingoistic messages to rally and organise the masses to lift those arms and start marching.) I think the Germans became more aggrieved, more vengeful, and more callous, which led them to make choices and behave in ways in 1939 that wouldn’t have been on the table in 1870 and 1914.

  13. I agree with your description of the reasons that made Hitler’s rise to power possible, but I believe there were two other important key components.

    One was hyperinflation (an indirect consequence of Germany’s response to parts of the Treaty of Versailles), which wiped out the life savings of many and severely weakened the middle class that is the backbone of liberal democracy. The second and even more disastrous event was the Great Depression, for which weakened Germany was even less prepared than other countries.

    As a result, the young democratic Weimar republic was increasingly associated with economic disasters and lasting instability, and more and more people longed for a strong leader who promised to remedy the problems with drastic measures. Before 1929, both the Nazis and the Communists stagnated in the polls. The catastrophe still needed a triggering event of sufficient severity.

    While in other respects I find the comparison with Putin and Russia mentioned by some commentators somewhat far-fetched, the economic and social instability in the period after the end of the Soviet Union certainly contributed to the population’s desire for leadership and stability.

  14. This makes Douglas Murray’s point that people become more susceptible to bad ideas during more difficult times. Hence the rise of intersectionalism, after the 2008 crash.

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