Thatcher, Warsaw and Brussels

by Andrew Stuttaford

Writing in the Daily Telegraph, Poland’s able foreign minister, Radek Sikorski (who had a long association with NR), writes a thoughtful appreciation of the contribution that Margaret Thatcher made to the liberation of his country:

What inspired us Poles most was that, with Reagan and John Paul II, she was a deeply moral politician. We greatly admired her clear-headedness with regards to the rights and wrongs of the Cold War. Mrs Thatcher believed in the justice and morality of a free society. And not just the evil but also the anthropological mistakenness of communism. She had it right, in other words, that people were willing to work hard on behalf of their family and their country – as long as the fruits of their labour were left as much as possible to themselves. This was the direct opposite of what we were taught under communism, namely that only an enforced altruism could build a prosperous society.

I believe that her visit to Poland in 1988 was an important factor behind the Communist Party’s decision to start negotiations with the Solidarity opposition. Preceded by Malcolm Rifkind – another figure we remember fondly – she travelled to Gdansk to meet Lech Walesa, which established him immediately as an alternative leader, even while General Jaruzelski’s military junta remained in charge. By all accounts, Mrs Thatcher gave Walesa sensible advice about the need to prepare for government.

So far so good. But Mr Sikorski has caught the EU bug, and it shows, and not just in the reference to Europe’s “success” today (yes and no, I’d say).  He recalls Thatcher’s advice that Poland should not join the EU (something I never knew) and, reasonably enough, says that the Poles “were happy to ignore” it.  They were right to. Poland needs to stay out of the euro, but it has done well out of EU membership. More broadly, helping anchor much of the liberated Soviet ‘Eastern Europe’ in the West has been one of the EU’s great achievements.

Unfortunately Mr. Sikorski then resorts to a counter-factual of total impossibility:

“ If Mrs Thatcher had become the president of the European Commission, she could have converted Europe and might have become a convert.”

I was in studying in Brussels when Mrs. Thatcher was first raising her, uh, concerns (“what we are asking is for a very large amount of our own money back”)  over the grotesquely disproportionate contribution to the EEC budget that Britain was then making (it still pays too much, since you ask), and I have never forgotten the contempt with which this provincial vulgarian who had somehow failed to sign up for the grand European dream was received. In time, that contempt was replaced by a somewhat gentler condescension and, even, a grudging respect. But it was never more than that. The idea that a gang that included Mitterrand, Kohl, the Italian crook and whoever was the Belgian pygmy of the day would ever have agreed to her becoming president of the Commission is ludicrous. I suspect that would have been the case even if Thatcher had transformed herself into the europhile that (despite agreeing to the Single European Act) she never was.  If she had made such a transformation, from supporter of the nation, democracy and the free market, to a devotee of supra-nation, technocracy and the social market, Thatcher would no longer have been Thatcher, so what would have been the point?

What’s perhaps most interesting is to see where the musings of Mr. Sikorski (who is sometimes mentioned as a potential EU ‘foreign minister’) lead him. If Margaret Thatcher had become the president of the Commission, Europe, he concludes “might be on the way to becoming a superpower.”

And, yes, that’s always been what it’s about.




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