Margaret Thatcher’s prophetic Bruges speech thirty years ago today sparked the debate that led to Brexit

Margaret Thatcher’s prophetic Bruges speech thirty years ago today sparked the debate that led to Brexit

One of the more absurd debates during the referendum was about whether Margaret Thatcher would have voted to Leave or Remain. Some claimed to know she would have been a Remainer based on what they thought. I rather prefer to go by what she said. Nonetheless, the debate is futile as no one can know for certain what would have been the view of a woman who was dead three years before the 2016 vote.

What we can know is that the referendum was result of decades of domestic debate about Britain’s role in what one of my university courses rightly called ‘Britain and the evolving European Community’.

And the word ‘evolving’ is crucial in this debate. For when Britain joined the EEC in the 1970s, accepting the Treaty of Rome into UK law, it was not to turn out to be a final settlement. The EEC became the EC and then the EU with the Single European Act and the Treaties of Maastricht, Amsterdam, Nice and Lisbon.

The process of evolution had taken us from joining a ‘Common Market’ to finding ourselves members of a Union that had a flag, an anthem, a currency, a Parliament and even its own citizenship.

Thirty years on to the day, it is fascinating to reread the speech that arguably reignited the debate – certainly within the Conservative Party – about Britain’s place in that evolving Europe.

That speech by Margaret Thatcher to the College of Europe in Bruges in 1988 now reads like a complex mix of the visionary, the prophetic, the managerial and the constrained.

She starts by taking head on the differing British and European views of what ‘European’ means.  She states:

Europe is not the creation of the Treaty of Rome. Nor is the European idea the property of any group or institution. We British are as much heirs to the legacy of European culture as any other nation. Our links to the rest of Europe, the continent of Europe, have been the dominant factor in our history.”

One can today – with the benefit of knowing the treaty changes that followed – hear her frustration at those who were intent on advancing a political project. She implicitly rejected that, saying: 

“The Community is not an end in itself. Nor is it an institutional device to be constantly modified according to the dictates of some abstract intellectual concept. Nor must it be ossified by endless regulation. The European Community is a practical means by which Europe can ensure the future prosperity and security of its people in a world in which there are many other powerful nations and groups of nations. We Europeans cannot afford to waste our energies on internal disputes or arcane institutional debates.”

This is the language of a Prime Minister clearly frustrated by the direction of travel of an institution, hostile to the supra-national vision – but as Prime Minister boxed in by the extent she can voice her true feelings. In so many lines of Bruges there is a coded rebuke to the destination on which she knows so many on the continent are set:

“My first guiding principle is this: willing and active cooperation between independent sovereign states is the best way to build a successful European Community. To try to suppress nationhood and concentrate power at the centre of a European conglomerate would be highly damaging and would jeopardise the objectives we seek to achieve.”

When she said “Working more closely together does not require power to be centralised in Brussels or decisions to be taken by an appointed bureaucracy”, could she have had in mind the EU we have today?

And how astonishing it is that, thirty years on, her call “to establish a genuinely free market in financial services in banking, insurance, investment” still needs to be made today.

One part that has not aged well was her call “to make greater use of the ecu”. She stated that:

This autumn, Britain is issuing ecu-denominated Treasury bills and hopes to see other Community governments increasingly do the same.”

For younger readers, this was a debate that I remember well from my youth.  The calls for a ‘common currency’ had already started. This was the prelude to the campaign for the single currency. Mrs Thatcher had an array of adversaries lined up against her, all convinced this was the right course. They were as familiar to her as they are to us today: the CBI, the TUC, the IOD, the FCO and, of course, the Treasury. Perhaps only because the Bank of England was yet to be independent did we not have our very own 1980s answer to Mark Carney to join the litany.

The hard ecu (European Currency Unit – to run alongside existing national currencies) was her way of playing for time and doing as little as possible in the hope that the project would be exposed. Thankfully for Britain, it was and we never joined the euro.

She also foretold in Bruges the problems with border controls.  She said:

“It is the same with frontiers between our countries. Of course, we want to make it easier for goods to pass through frontiers. Of course, we must make it easier for people to travel throughout the Community. But it is a matter of plain common sense that we cannot totally abolish frontier controls if we are also to protect our citizens from crime and stop the movement of drugs, of terrorists and of illegal immigrants.”

In a distant but insistent echo, she appeared to be an early advocate for Global Britain. “Europe should not be protectionist.” she declared. And her argument of three decades ago finds its voice again today among internationalist Brexiteers:

The expansion of the world economy requires us to continue the process of removing barriers to trade, and to do so in the multilateral negotiations in the GATT. It would be a betrayal if, while breaking down constraints on trade within Europe, the Community were to erect greater external protection. We must ensure that our approach to world trade is consistent with the liberalisation we preach at home. We have a responsibility to give a lead on this, a responsibility which is particularly directed towards the less developed countries. They need not only aid; more than anything, they need improved trading opportunities if they are to gain the dignity of growing economic strength and independence.”

Her final major theme was defence and again her words find a powerful credence today:

Europe must continue to maintain a sure defence through NATO.  There can be no question of relaxing our efforts, even though it means taking difficult decisions and meeting heavy costs. It is to NATO that we owe the peace that has been maintained over 40 years. And the time has come when we must give substance to our declarations about a strong defence effort with better value for money. It is not an institutional problem. It is not a problem of drafting. It is something at once simpler and more profound: it is a question of political will and political courage, of convincing people in all our countries that we cannot rely for ever on others for our defence, but that each member of the Alliance must shoulder a fair share of the burden.”

How that would find a welcome in today’s White House.

Any speech from history must be read in the context it was delivered. What makes Bruges fascinating and enduring is that it was in a real sense the beginning of a campaign. It was a call for a different kind of Europe; a Europe of the nation states, of willing cooperation, outward-looking, limited, practical and free-trading. In varying guises, all of Mrs Thatcher’s successors – Major, Blair, Brown and Cameron – all took up that campaign. They promised to lead from within, to reform and ultimately to renegotiate.

Ranged against the vision of Bruges were the forces of European integration. They run like an integrationist thread, uninterrupted, from Delors to Juncker.

Ultimately, perhaps the verdict on Bruges is that it began the debate that led to 2016. Concern to scepticism about the European project had hitherto been confined to the fringes. Yet there in 1988 in the last year at the height of her powers was the most powerful of Prime Ministers giving voice to doubt about the whole destination of the project and setting out a different vision.

What an irony that the failure of the vision laid out in Bruges by Britain’s first woman Prime Minister to prevail, leads, thirty years on, to Britain’s second woman Prime Minister being on the cusp of taking Britain out of the European Union altogether.