Delors and Thatcher clashed, but their visions combined might now save Europe (2024)

One of the most memorable things Margaret Thatcher ever said was, “No. No. No.” Those words triggered the resignation of Geoffrey Howe, her most senior minister, and thus the Conservative leadership contest of November 1990. She won thefirst ballot, but by too small a margin to prevent a second. Reluctantly, she stood down.

Few remember at whom her three nos were directed. But this week we have been reminded by his death, aged98. Uniquely for a continental bureaucrat, Jacques Delors, President of the European Commission from 1985-95, became a household name inBritain. Mrs Thatcher opposed his ideas and his power. The consequences are still with us. There was an integrity to their quarrel. Like many Frenchmen of his generation, Delors believed the only way to avoid another terrible European war was to create a single European superstate with its own sovereignty, laws, currency, economic policy, defence and parliament – the European Union. Apart from the Commission, its chief motor would be the unbreakable alliance between the former enemies, France and Germany.

So important to Delors was the tightness of the Franco-German link that he was closer to the German Chancellor, Helmut Kohl, than to his own country’s president, François Mitterrand. He saw the big German asmore “European”.

Mrs Thatcher countered Delors’s points. While in office at least (her views hardened afterwards), she favoured quite a strong European Community, whose members shared amarket. But she never wanted to let the EEC – as it was called when she became prime minister – gain the authority and appurtenances of a state.

She and Delors even disagreed about how he be addressed. As Commission President, he wished to be “M. le President”. To Mrs Thatcher, who denied him the status of elected leaders, he was just “M. Delors”.

Nor did she want a single European sovereignty, currency, economic policy or army, or a European parliament that could challenge the British one. Those three famous nos of hers were directed at Delors’ publicly stated idea that the European Parliament should be the democratic body of the Community, the Commission the executive and the Council of Ministers the Senate.

She disagreed with Delors about means as well as ends. He saw his European project and its “Social Chapter” – which almost single-handedly turned the Labour Party Europhile – as something that should bypass the tiresome tendency of national electorates to throw spanners in the bureaucratic works.

Mrs Thatcher, by contrast, disliked the way mainstream British parties kept the European debate away from voters. In her last days in office, she publicly proposed a referendum on Delors’s plan to create a European single currency (the future euro). Part of her legacy was that this proposal morphed into a referendum on EU membership itself. The British electorate’s 2016 decision to leave was the largest vote ever cast for anything in our history.

Like Delors, Mrs Thatcher wanted to avoid another great European war. Unlike him, she thought security lay in strong, independent nation states, and in membership of Nato under US leadership. The only European nation state she did not want strong was Germany, whose will to power she feared. In 1984, Mitterrand and Kohl stood in reconciliation by the ossuary near Verdun, scene of the worst battle of the Great War. Didn’t Mrs Thatcher find this moving, someone asked her privately. “No, I did NOT,” she replied, “Two grown men holding hands!”

Delors and Mrs Thatcher respected each other. She admired his rigour as French finance minister and supported his renewal as Commission President. He told me that her Eurosceptic Bruges speech of 1988, which had attacked the centralising tendencies he represented, had been delivered “in beautiful language, very direct” – “très bien cuit” (very well cooked). But their disagreement, he felt, was necessary: “I understood the need for confrontation with her.”

They were worthy opponents – one socialist, anti-American, Catholic and of an official cast of mind; the other conservative, Atlanticist, Methodist and democratic – two serious, diligent, able, touchy people who sincerely disagreed about what was best for the future of their continent. Now that both are dead, and there is, in Ukraine, another European war, I wonder what might be learnt from their mighty quarrel.

At the time, Jacques Delors won. He provided the spark with which pro-European, anti-Thatcher elements at the top of the Party could light the blue touchpaper. He got the peaceful reunification of Germany and his stated price for it – the euro. He was arguably the most successful unelected person to hold office in Europe in the 20th century. Mrs Thatcher lost, although her rage against the Delors plan helped keep Britain out of the single currency and prevent the other half of the Delors vision, which was European political union. Her misgivings about the speed of German reunification marginalised her at what might otherwise have been her moment of greatest personal triumph – the peaceful defeat of Soviet Communism.

But now that another generation has passed, the picture is more confusing. Although the euro has not collapsed, as many predicted, under the strain of trying to fit more than half a continent into one size, it has not ushered in the new era of economic dynamism and industrial/social strategy for which Delors strove. Economically, the eurozone is stagnant. Nor, on the other hand, has an over-mighty Germany been as Mrs Thatcher imagined. Germany is the dominant power in western Europe, but its problem seems more its weakness than its strength. Look at its low growth, and its energy policies which laid it shockingly open to neutralism and Russian bullying. Look at its painful slowness in moving to help Ukraine militarily. Germany and France combined seem no longer to provide clear EU leadership.

Mrs Thatcher made a political, perhaps even a moral error in failing to give public credit to Germany for how it had transformed itself since the Second World War. Paradoxically, however, she saw Europe in a way which was more complete than that of most euro-enthusiasts. In the Bruges speech, she encouraged the EC to look eastward beyond its borders. It should “always look on Warsaw, Prague and Budapest as great European cities”. To its credit, the EU eventually agreed with her. In 2004, the states of those three capital cities joined (though none is yet in the eurozone).

Even hardened Eurosceptics (like me) will tend to see this as a benefit when compared with the alternative of being a Russian satellite. If I were a Ukrainian today, in search of shelter from Vladimir Putin’s blizzard, I would want my country admitted to the EU, though I would want Nato membership more.

One reason that Mrs Thatcher worried about speedy German reunification was how it might affect Russia. She feared the collapse of Mikhail Gorbachev’s reforms there and the return of hardliners driven by resentment at the end of the Soviet Empire. At that time, the world had not heard of a young KGB officer in Dresden called Vladimir Putin. But, more than 30 years on, he is her fear made flesh.

Might it be possible that the threat from Putin could produce a Delors-like unity and a Thatcher-like response to danger, a truly powerful Western response, in which the EU and NATO – the European continent, the United Kingdom and the United States – are allies not rivals? We shall know in the course of the coming year whether it is already too late.

As an expert in European politics and history, I can delve into the intricacies of the article, shedding light on the historical context and the key figures involved. My in-depth knowledge allows me to connect the dots and provide a comprehensive understanding of the concepts presented.

The article revolves around the clash of ideologies and visions between two influential figures, Margaret Thatcher and Jacques Delors, during the late 20th century. Here are the key concepts explored in the article:

  1. Margaret Thatcher's Opposition to European Integration:

    • Thatcher opposed Jacques Delors, the President of the European Commission, and his vision of creating a single European superstate.
    • She favored a strong European Community focused on economic cooperation but resisted the idea of a European state with its own sovereignty, laws, currency, economic policy, defense, and parliament.
  2. Jacques Delors' Vision for Europe:

    • Delors believed in creating a unified Europe to prevent another devastating European war. His vision included a single European superstate and a strong alliance between France and Germany.
    • He proposed the European Parliament as the democratic body, the Commission as the executive, and the Council of Ministers as the Senate.
  3. Thatcher's Euroscepticism and Referendum Proposal:

    • Thatcher was Eurosceptic and, in her last days in office, proposed a referendum on Delors's plan to create a European single currency (the future euro).
    • Her legacy includes the proposal evolving into a referendum on EU membership, culminating in the 2016 decision by the British electorate to leave the EU.
  4. Divergent Views on Nation States and Security:

    • Thatcher believed in the strength of independent nation-states and favored NATO under US leadership for security.
    • Delors, on the other hand, saw security in a unified European superstate.
  5. Legacy and Reassessment:

    • Delors won in the sense that his vision led to the peaceful reunification of Germany and the introduction of the euro.
    • The article questions the long-term outcomes, noting economic stagnation in the eurozone and Germany's perceived weakness.
  6. Thatcher's Broader Vision for Europe:

    • Thatcher advocated for the European Community to look beyond its borders, encouraging a focus on Warsaw, Prague, and Budapest as great European cities.
    • The EU eventually expanded to include these cities' states in 2004.
  7. Current Concerns and the Russian Threat:

    • The article draws parallels between past concerns about German reunification affecting Russia and the current threat from Vladimir Putin.
    • It speculates on the possibility of a unified Western response to Putin's threat, akin to a Delors-Thatcher-like collaboration.

As we reflect on the historical dynamics between Thatcher and Delors, the article prompts us to consider the contemporary geopolitical landscape and the potential for unity in the face of new challenges, particularly the threat posed by Vladimir Putin.

Delors and Thatcher clashed, but their visions combined might now save Europe (2024)
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