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Thatcher's European legacy

Margaret Thatcher was known in Europe and the world as the Iron Lady. DW talked to analyst Heinz Schulte, an expert on Anglo-German relations, about Thatcher's impact on Germany and Europe.

(Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)

Margaret Thatcher und Helmut Kohl

DW: Margaret Thatcher was a very British Prime Minister, but she also had an impact in Europe and beyond, didn't she?

Heinz Schulte: There's no doubt about it. If I look back at Mrs. Thatcher's legacy, three things come to mind. First of all her famous sentence, "I want my money back" - certainly something that I think in the current debate about the euro crisis could be repeated. Then I think about her role in the Falkland's war, that she was a determined national leader who was not afraid of using military force. And the third point, which from the German perspective is very important, is that there was a reluctance, not to put too fine a point on it, on Mrs Thatcher's side, to accept that German unification was going to happen. You probably remember the famous seminar at Chequers [The British Prime Minister's country residence] about German humor, and the German psyche, and [she was wondering] - can the Germans be trusted in a united Germany? So she was a very formidable lady and she earned the title of Iron Lady, also in a European context.

Can you explain a bit more about the role Thatcher played, and that her doubts played, in the reunification of Germany? Because she was skeptical, wasn't she?

She was skeptical, and what's interesting is that she was not alone. The other skeptic was Mr. Mitterrand [France's president between 1981 and 1995]. From a German perspective it was always clear that the European partners supported German unification. And they did - as long as it was a paper option.

But it looked very different at the moment the [Berlin] wall came down. So, from a purely German perspective, German unification came about because the Soviet Union was reconsidering her options in Europe, and the United States - and George Bush the elder in particular - understood the advantages of a Soviet withdrawal from central and eastern Europe. Now what was the price Germany paid for this? The price was the acceptance of the euro currency. It is very interesting that Britain at that time did not play a role in the euro currency, which was a clear response to German reunification and French fears.

Do you think in any way that Thatcher could be vindicated for her fears or reluctance about German reunification?

First of all I believe that you cannot stop an historical process. So from that perspective I believe she was wrong. Where I think she was also wrong is that she didn't try to influence the debate on the continent more positively - and that is, by the way, a reflection I have of the current British position, too. If the point the British make about a more pragmatic Europe is correct, we should debate [that] from the inside rather than outside.

So as a German who has a lot of sympathy and affection for Britain, it pains me that Britain's and [Thatcher's] pragmatic approach to politics is not inside the European tent, but rather outside - or at least trying to get outside. I think Mrs. Thatcher saw the tides of history, and she tried to stem them, and that is something that is probably impossible.

She did vote to get Britain inside the European Economic Area, so she didn't stem every move to join Britain with Europe. But then towards the end of her life she's been remembered as a euro skeptic and very anti-Europe. Do you think the contrast in her policies towards Europe is symptomatic of Britain's attitude to Europe?

I think she was far more clever and nuanced than that. You must remember [that] she did not opt out. She was a very difficult and obstinate negotiator in the European context. But she stayed inside. She never asked for a referendum to get out.

So from a German perspective she was a formidable obstacle, but at the end of the day the lady could be danced with. But she could not be turned. And that's maybe something different from now. Thatcher stands for a different Britain, in a different time. Now we have German unification. We have the pivot to Asia by the United States, we have the euro crisis. What is Britain's role in all that? Is it just painfully looking backwards or is it looking forward? That is really the question we have to ask on this side of the Channel.

Do you think, in the light of the euro crisis, she was right to stay out of the euro?

I think the euro crisis has to do with developments in Europe which could not have been foreseen at the time. There are many problems with the euro, but on the other hand I do think that we have already reached the peak of it, and that the euro is probably irreversible. That does not mean that all members of the euro zone stay inside, but I can not for the life of me see the Germans going back to the deutschmark or the Dutch going back to the gilder. So from that point of view, the euro is not an object to be achieved, it's a process. It'll be interesting to see what the British perspective will be in a couple of years' time.

Would you say on balance that Thatcher was good or bad for Europe?

That's a very difficult question. She was a formidable politician at the time. She did extraordinary things, for instance how she resolutely dealt with the trade unions in Britain, how she dealt with the Falkland's crisis. But she was a person acting within the time she was prime minister. I'm not so sure she had a vision for the future. I'm not so sure she would understand how the world has changed. That now the euro is a strategic partner to the US in hedging the Chinese currency. And that Europe is not about free trade only, or about defense, but that there is a totally new transatlantic narrative that is no longer Anglo-American. There is a special relationship between London and Washington, yes. But there is a special relationship between Washington and Berlin and between Washington and Canberra. So the world has changed. She has contributed to the European process as we see it, but let's not overdo it.

Regardless of politics, she was admired for being this "Iron Lady" and also for retaining her femininity - with the famous handbags and that kind of thing. Would you say that that's the same here in Germany?

I think she is respected. She was a leader and a personality. I mean the very fact that a movie was made about her shows what a formidable character she was. How many politicians can say that about them? I think the word in Germany is "respect."

Heinz Schulte is a respected political analyst and has been observing the Anglo-German relationship for many years. He is also a professed "Anglophile."

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