Monday 21 January 2019

John Downing: Salvaging the wreckage of an EU-UK relationship that really should have worked

Margaret Thatcher spoke about the need for a vibrant European
Community that “opens windows on the world”
Margaret Thatcher spoke about the need for a vibrant European Community that “opens windows on the world”
John Downing

John Downing

It is now largely forgotten that Margaret Thatcher - these days mainly recalled as the "iconic mother of Euroscepticism" - was in fact very pro-European right up to the latter years of her career.

But, as Theresa May unveiled yet another landmark Brexit speech, that forgotten reality remains emblematic of what might have been in the UK-EU relationship.

In summary, it is a relationship which could, and indeed should, have worked - but now the focus is on mitigating harm and salvaging something useful from its wreckage.

Just months after her election as leader of the British Conservative Party, Mrs Thatcher campaigned conscientiously for a 'Yes' in the retrospective referendum on UK membership in June 1975. During that successful 'Remain' campaign, Margaret Thatcher spoke strongly in the House of Commons of the need for a vibrant European Community which "opens windows on the world for us which since the war have been closing".

She managed to hit out at the then-Labour government's achievement of "only cosmetic changes" to Britain's entry terms to the EEC back in January 1973, under her Conservative predecessor, the passionate Europhile Ted Heath.

Ireland had coat-tailed the UK into the bloc back then, and has had to manage through a series of dramatic 'forks in the road' in the EU-UK relationship ever since. But it was during Mrs Thatcher's term as UK prime minister, from 1979 to 1990, that the London-Brussels relationship began to come under a series of badly managed strains.

These problems festered and expanded, continuing long after she departed the political stage, culminating in the June 2016 Brexit referendum, which basically divided the nation almost equally, with just a 4pc victory for the 'Leave' side.

Euroscepticism is very far from being an exclusive British phenomenon.

But since the mid-1980s onwards, it has often been driven by Britain's political influence.

Some observers argue that it is divided into three strains. There are the 'pragmatists', ready to accept a limited loss of national sovereignty for economic and other policy advancement.

There are the principled 'Eurosceptics', who want to maximise free trade but avoid giving regulatory powers to the European Commission and the EU Court of Justice.

Finally, there are the 'absolutists' who do not accept any concession of national sovereignty.

There are grounds for arguing that during Mrs Thatcher's power years, and thereafter in her undignified utterances after being ousted, she travelled through all three phases.

By the end, she was close to, though not totally at one with, the absolutists. Her various utterances stoked the divisions in her own party, which has been at war over the EU for 30 years.

When Britain first entered the EEC in 1973, the strongest opposition came from elements of the Labour Party. When he was re-elected prime minister in 1974, Harold Wilson engaged in renegotiating the so-called 'Tory entry terms' with Brussels, and put the result to a referendum a year later.

But Wilson was obliged to allow his MPs and even ministers to take whatever stance they wished.

Many Labour heavy-hitters, notably Tony Benn, Michael Foot and Peter Shore, advocated a 'Leave' vote.

Labour Euroscepticism has persisted through the decades. It was patched up by Tony Blair in the years 1997-2007 but still very evident in the 2016 referendum, where Labour's failure to mobilise support for 'Remain' in the English midlands and north effectively gave the day to the 'Leave' camp.

Both sides, and let us characterise them as 'Brussels' and 'London', made errors of judgment.

Mrs Thatcher herself misjudged the required tone putting the UK case for a reduction in its contributions in the years 1979-84.

She and her officials also underestimated the political skills of the inspirational EU Commission president, Jacques Delors, and the depth of his support in Paris and Berlin.

François Mitterrand and Helmut Kohl were the last leaders who experienced the horrors of World War II and its aftermath of famine and grinding poverty.

The UK often had huge right on its side as it fought for pragmatic solutions and a slower pace of co-operation.

But too often London failed to connect with Brussels because of a suspected lack of faith that the UK ever really wanted to be part of the emerging European Union.

Too often it looked like UK post-colonial trauma.

Irish Independent

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