Nosemonkey's EUtopia

In search of a European identity

Thatcher, Bruges and future Tory EU policy

Still catching up, but it would be churlish not to mention the 20th anniversary of Margaret Thatcher’s celebrated (in some circles) Bruges speech, which passed the other day with the usual guff from withdrawalists. The BBC’s Nick Robinson has a fun piece on the anniversary celebrations and the Tories’ Europe problem which is well worth reading, considering the fact that they’re likely to be in power at some point within the next couple of years.

David CameronBecause the Tories under David Cameron still have no EU policy. I’ve been hunting for one for a while now (March 2008, July 2006), and they still seem no closer to working out what they even think of the thing. (It’s not just the Tories, of course – Labour are just as bad…)

The thing is, Thatcher’s near-infamous Bruges speech remains a great starting point for the Tories to set out their position on Britain’s involvement with the rest of Europe. An odd thing for someone who labels himself loosely pro-EU to say? Not really…

The speech is well worth reading in full – because it’s now become this near-mythical anti-EU manifesto for British withdrawalists (notably anti-EU “think tank” the Bruges Group, named after the speech – a think tank not afraid to associate itself with some of the more hysterical anti-EU crowd).

With such a massive reputation to fight through, it’s very easy to make assumptions about what Thatcher actually said. Listen to the anti-EU lot and you’d think that the speech was a blistering attack on the very idea of a common European future, delivered in the kind of foaming-at-the-mouth style that anyone who’s been knocking around EU-related internet forums has come to associate with British euroscepticism. (Seriously, British anti-EU types – you’re embarrassing me here… I want to feel proud of being British, and you’re making us all look like arseholes – same as those drunken tits on the Costa del Sol. Whatever happened to the old British virtues of decency, restraint and politeness?)

Yet it actually contains much that is positive towards a European Union, and fully supports continued British engagement at the heart of the process. It’s just that it doesn’t support the direction the current EU has been heading for the last 30-odd years towards greater centralisation and uniformity. Pretty much all of Thatcher’s suggestions back then are still being made to this day – and not just by eurosceptics.

Sadly, though, Thatcher’s Bruges speech is more referred to than read – and thanks to its current associations with flag-waving anti-EU nutters it is mostly ignored. Yet its overall vision for Europe remains a sound alternative to the current model, while in the details are identified many of the key problems with the current set-up, none of which have really changed in two decades. It’s got its problems, certainly – I don’t advocate everything that Maggie said by any means – but as a starting point for creating an alternative vision for the European Union, it remains both simple (if occasionally overly simplistic) and compelling. Check out the Wordle-generated word cloud of the speech (with only Europe, Community, European, Britain, British and removed – the five most commonly-used words, and in that order) – there may be a slight tilt towards an economic vision of European co-operation, but she covers a lot of ground:

Thatcher's Bruges speech word cloud

Most satisfying, though, is that it provides a healthy supply of quotes defending and advocating Britain’s close involvement with the rest of Europe (even to the point of advocating greater use of a European single currency) which can be thrown at any British eurosceptics that happen by…

“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…

Too often, the history of Europe is described as a series of interminable wars and quarrels. Yet from our perspective today surely what strikes us most is our common experience… It is the record of nearly two thousand years of British involvement in Europe, cooperation with Europe and contribution to Europe, contribution which today is as valid and as strong as ever…

Britain does not dream of some cosy, isolated existence on the fringes of the European Community. Our destiny is in Europe, as part of the Community.”

What are the chances of David Cameron ever making a speech containing that kind of rhetoric? The old Tory squabbles over the EU that dominated the 1990s may well have subsided, but the party leadership are still worried that they’re bubbling away under the surface. The recent campaign for a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty showed how powerful anti-EU populism can be. Though the campaign was ultimately unsuccessful, it did demonstrate one thing – euroscepticism remains a danger to the Conservative party. Perhaps its biggest danger.

These people will be in charge of the EU’s second largest economy – and yet even they don’t know what they are going to do once they come to power.

(On a related note, Richard Corbett may be a decidedly pro-EU Labour MEP writing in the left-wing Guardian, so just about as biased as they come on this topic, but his recent look at current Tory attitudes towards the EU is essential reading.)