Thatcher’s fear of an overmighty Germany lives on in Brexit

Thirty years after the Berlin Wall fell, the power balance in the EU is being upended again

Philip Stephens

web_Thatcher and German re-unification
© Ingram Pinn/Financial Times

Thirty years ago, at one of the hinge points of European history, Margaret Thatcher tipped up at the Kremlin for talks with Mikhail Gorbachev. Britain’s prime minister had once described the Soviet president as someone with whom she could “do business”.

Now, the foundations of Soviet communism were cracking. Hungary had torn down the barbed wire at its border. East Germans were fleeing westwards. The fall of the Berlin Wall was only weeks away.

For journalists travelling with Thatcher, the visit was memorable for more trivial reasons. After a rapid-fire Japanese tour, the prime minister’s party arrived on a gruelling flight from Tokyo. Thatcher travelled on one of the Royal Air Force’s ageing VC-10s. Decades earlier the aircraft had been at aviation’s cutting edge; by the standards of 1989, it was uncomfortable, noisy and, for those squeezed into the back, claustrophobic.

Its limited range meant a refuelling stop at a military air base in bleakest Siberia, where two burly Soviet air force officers joined the party. Were they spies or chaperones? Either way, they would surely report back that the top secret communications equipment carried on the flight resembled nothing so much as a collection of vintage valve radios.

Thatcher had spent a lifetime fighting communism — at one with her great friend US president Ronald Reagan in condemning the Berlin Wall as a shameful barrier to freedom. A year earlier, in a speech in Bruges, she had spoken eloquently of a Europe of democracies that also embraced Prague, Warsaw and Budapest. History was turning her way.

Yet even as the Soviet empire began to unravel, the Iron Lady was having second thoughts. During a long, private encounter in the Kremlin’s St Catherine Hall, Thatcher offered Mr Gorbachev what seems now an unimaginable pledge. “We do not want the unification of Germany,” she said. “It would lead to changes in the postwar borders that . . . [would] undermine the stability of the entire international situation.” Mr Gorbachev should ignore any Nato statements suggesting otherwise. The alliance would not spur the collapse of the Warsaw Pact or indeed the “de-communisation” of eastern Europe.

This was explosive stuff. The note-takers had been told to put down their pens. Mr Gorbachev’s adviser Anatoly Chernyaev, however, wrote a lengthy account when the meeting ended. A shorter version, authored by Thatcher’s aide Charles Powell, reached just a handful of people in Whitehall.

Thatcher’s démarche was a product of personal neuralgia. She never let go of the deep suspicion of Germany shared by many of her generation on the right of the Conservative party.

Had the Germans really changed? Wasn’t aggressive expansionism part of the national character? A year later she sacked the Eurosceptic minister Nicholas Ridley after he compared EU plans for a single currency with Adolf Hitler’s ambitions.  In truth, she agreed with him.
Some others in Europe shared her fears. The cold war stand-off with the Soviet Union had provided a curious stability. When Thatcher met French president François Mitterrand in December 1989 there was talk of a new entente cordiale to contain German power. But Mitterrand soon understood that the genie was out of the bottle. Britain might try to block or delay unification, but France would seek instead to lock a united Germany into a more integrated Europe through the creation of a single currency.

Thirty years later, the postwar transformation of Germany — its firm embrace of pacifism and commitments to democracy and a rules-based international order — still goes unnoticed across a large swath of the Brexit-supporting Conservative party. Boris Johnson struggles to resist parallels between the ambitions of the EU and those of Nazi Germany. The euro is hegemony by another means. The prime minister’s language, and that of his fellow Brexiters, is shot through with imagery — standing alone, surrender, collaborator and traitor — calculated to summon up the second world war.

As it happens, unification did indeed mark the return of the German question — in the simple sense that Germany’s preponderant economic power is once again an unavoidable fact of life. What the Brexiters miss is that the EU was designed as a strong countervailing force. The US security guarantee embedded in Nato serves the same purpose — underpinning the democratic foundations of a European Germany in place of a German Europe.

Brexit upends the big-power balance within the EU. France finds itself alone as a counterpoint to Germany. This at a time when US president Donald Trump is doing his best to weaken Nato. A charitable interpretation of Thatcher’s performance in Moscow would say she wanted to preserve the security offered by the status quo. Brexit marches in the opposite direction. If there is any risk of an over-mighty Germany it lies in the collapse of the present European order.

On the VC10’s flight back to London the journalists joined Thatcher in her more spacious, if scarcely luxurious, quarters. For the only time I can recall on such a trip, she asked the RAF stewards to break out champagne. Then she waxed lyrical about Mr Gorbachev’s great courage in pressing ahead with perestroika and glasnost. Not a whisper was heard of a plan that would have denied East Germans their freedom.

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