Bloomberg News

One Europe and So Many Thatchers

April 09, 2013

Margaret Thatcher's death has achieved the impossible -- for a day she united Europe.

At least, Europe's media all seemed agreed that the passing of Mrs T (as Thatcher was often called in the U.K.) was the story of the day, and that love or loathe her brand of politics it changed Britain and the world.

You could often tell the political slant of a newspaper this morning, just from the choice of Thatcher's picture that editors made for their front page. In the U.K., for example, the conservative Daily Telegraph and Daily Mail have pictures in which Thatcher is set against a dark backdrop and the light around her head resembles a halo. Their coverage is equally gushing.

Liberation, the French left wing daily, also gives over their entire front page to a picture of the Iron Lady. In their photograph, however, she strikes an arrogant pose and the headline pulls no punches: “The Grim Reaper,” it . Inside, economist Denis Clerc writes that Thatcher brought economic success and social catastrophe to Britain. “Under Thatcher the rich became richer and the poor became poorer," says Clerc. "At the same time she succeeded in getting Britain out of the profound economic crisis into which it had plunged.”

Like many on Europe's left, Clerc thinks that Thatcher's legacy of deregulation and privatization is all around us, in the form of Europe’s current economic crisis. By instilling the idea of the all-powerful nature of the markets in so many people, he says, Thatcher encouraged Europe's banks to resist the regulatory changes that have become necessary today.

Le Figaro, France's main newspaper of the right, shows Thatcher standing in front of a Union Jack, the British flag. Their headline: “Courage in Power”. Figaro's coverage is admiring, and online it offers a video with the caption: “The cold reaction of France’s politicians: On our side of the Channel, the liberal doctrine incarnated by Margaret Thatcher is criticized by part of the political class which at best sees a great woman “for England” and at worst the carrier of the seeds of the current crisis.”

Germans took a generally skeptical view. “The Iron Lady” but no Feminist," says the headline in Die Zeit, before going on to describe her as a revolutionary.

Der Spiegel’s reporter writes from London that Thatcher was the U.K.’s “uber-mother figure,” who “reveled in her role as the island’s unbending dominatrix.” He adds: “She alienated the Europeans in Brussels with her constant mantra of “no,no,no.” And she drove the West German Chancellor to the verge of desperation with her dogged resistance to German reunification.”

In Spain, El Pais carries a report from its correspondent in Argentina, about reactions there to the death of the woman who defeated the Argentines in the Falkands War of 1982. The article discusses the sinking of the Argentinian ship the Belgrano, with the loss of 323 lives. Thatcher's decision to order the attack launched combat hostilities, and remains controversial today because the ship appeared to be sailing away from the Falklands at the time. “She killed a lot of innocent people,” the paper quotes Argentine radio journalist Victor Hugo Morales as saying. “That is why we are not going to shed a tear for that woman.”

In Dublin, the Irish Times focuses on Thatcher’s role in Northern Ireland and the dark years of conflict and terrorism that preceded the peace process, which began only after her departure from power. Thatcher lost a close friend to Irish terrorists in 1979, and she herself narrowly escaped death at the hands of the IRA in the 1984 bombing of a Brighton hotel. So the hard line she took was perhaps understandable. For the paper’s Gerry Moriarty, there is an “historic paradox” in Thatcher’s refusal to bend to pressure when IRA prisoners starved themselves to death in hunger strikes in 1980 and 1981. It persuaded the IRA “that there could be a political alternative” to their campaign of violence.

“While it took too long for the republican movement to accept the logic of politics over paramilitarism there is no gainsaying that Mrs Thatcher’s obduracy over the hunger strikes – certainly by accident rather than design – provided them with that political opportunity which they grasped so well. Mrs Thatcher left her mark on British and world affairs but there is no doubting that she has an important place in modern Irish history too.”

Former communist Europe inevitably recalls Thatcher primarily for her staunch opposition to communism. Articles abound discussing how she touched each particular country. For example, Jutarnji List in Croatia carries a piece in which her support for Croatian independence is remembered. The author Borislav Skegro laments that she left power just at the moment that Yugoslavia began to break up. Had she remained, argues Skegro, then the Yugoslav wars that began in 1991 and ended in 1999 would have been a lot less bloody, implying that she would have demanded decisive Western intervention sooner.

Perhaps because of the depth of the political crisis in Italy, the coverage of Thatcher's passing gets a little less prominence. Gianni Rotta, a columnist for La Stampa writes a sympathetic piece about the cultural ferment of Britain in the Thatcher years, much of it provoked by opposition to the prime minister. He ends with a personal recollection of a visit she made to Italy after leaving power, to launch the translation of her memoirs. It fell to him to introduce her in Milan.

Afterwards she had thanked him and said quietly: "It is very nice to talk about liberty here in Italy with you, because as soon as you have freed your economy from bureaucracy and subsidies no one in Europe will know how to compete with your talent.” It was vintage Thatcher.

(Tim Judah, the Europe correspondent for the World View blog, is a correspondent for the Economist and author of several books on the Balkans. Follow him on Twitter. The opinions expressed are his own.)

To contact the author of this article: Tim Judah at timjudah@btinternet.com.

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Marc Champion at mchampion7@bloomberg.net.


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