23 MARCH 2002, Page 9

Lady Thatcher's views may be unmentionable but she has plenty of support from Gerhard Schroeder


Lady Thatcher's book may not have fallen stillborn from the press, but the extracts from it about the European Union in this week's Times have created nothing like the stir they would have done only a short while ago. The Conservatives' inglorious tactic of declining to say anything whatever about it worked. Most Conservatives agree with most of what Lady Thatcher says, but it has frankly been rather a relief, since _lain Duncan Smith took over the leadership, to be spared a continuous and fantastically repetitive argument about Europe. The subject is calculated to drive anyone who cares about the liberties of this country into a rage, and the last thine the people of this country want to see is a large number of angry Conservatives, or even a small number of angry Conservatives. Mr Duncan Smith's people know that until they regain credibility on other issues, they cannot bore on about Europe. Their time is better devoted to finding worthwhile things to say about crime, health, transport and other domestic subjects where the government is floundering.

So it is encouraging for the Conservatives that the great work made so little impact, even though it was the vote to ban foxhunting which helped, as Jo Moore would have said, to bury it. The party will need to talk about Europe again, but in a less aggressive tone of voice: one that is tolerant of dissent both from within the party and from beyond. If the Danes are worried about the EU because they think it will destroy their welfare state, or the French because nobody speaks French any more, or the Germans because Brussels wants to stop them running their own industrial policy, the British Eurosceptic should be happy to make common cause with them.

It so happens that the German Chancellor, Gerhard Schroeder, is just now very angry indeed with the European Commission. He is the most important member of the European club, he pays the lion's share of the bills. yet the club secretary, some Italian josser called Romano Prodi, has the cheek to tell him how to run Germany. Mr Schroeder can be charming to just about anyone when he tries, and is always grateful for late-night company with whom to crack open another bottle of red wine, but he made his way in politics as a loner and is good at mashing up functionaries who presume to stand in his way. Journalists who attended the background briefing given by Mr Schroeder at last weekend's EU summit in Barcelona were nevertheless astonished by the vehemence with which the Chancellor laid into the commission, headed by Mr Prodi.

The EU is only solvent because soon after becoming Chancellor Mr Schroeder agreed to bankroll it until 2006, but, as he said in Barcelona, he won't be making that mistake again if he's still around the next time the EU comes cap in hand. The commission has repaid his largesse by telling him he is running too large a budget deficit. Oblivious to the pain caused by Vodafone's takeover of Mannesmann, the commission seeks to sweep away the protection which German companies enjoy from being bought up by Americans and other foreigners. It wants to forbid the huge public investment which, the Chancellor says, is still needed in the former East Germany. It undermines the German car industry by trying to subvert its monopolistic practices, and, what is more, a Swedish woman who is environment commissioner is trying to destroy the German chemical industry. This was the burden of Mr Schroeder's complaint in Barcelona, where he also declared that he has summoned Mr Prodi and several other members of the commission to Berlin to explain themselves.

Now Mr Schroeder has an election to win against a Eurosceptic opponent, Edmund Stoiber of Bavaria, and is behind in the polls. The Chancellor needs to be seen defending German interests and could do with someone to blame for his failure to bring unemployment down. But when Mr • Schroeder starts berating Brussels, a note of authenticity enters his voice. He expresses the anger of the small man in Germany who feels let down by the anti-German spirit of the country's own elite, people such as Joschka Fischer, the foreign minister, who see it as their life's work to dissolve Germany within Europe. Mr Schroeder is professional enough to mouth the official proEuropean orthodoxy on the numerous occasions when there is no mileage for him in stepping Out of line, for example when being interviewed by some Eurosceptic British newspaper which wants to recruit him as an ally. He is not going to align himself with Lady Thatcher. Yet he actually has much in common with her. As Tilman Fichter, a veteran member of, and authority on, Mr Schroeder's party (whose full name, it should be remembered, is the Social Democratic party of Germany), has observed. Mr Schroeder ruled Lower Saxony from Hanover before going on to rule Germany from Berlin. Hanover has close ties to Britain and it is not fanciful to detect in Mr Schroeder a pragmatism of British hue. The Chancellor last week observed, with a clear eye, that the 'European' foreign and defence policy does not exist, because it does not work: look at the abject failure to reach a common position on Iraq.

Like Lady Thatcher, Mr Schroeder is strongly in favour of Europe when it does what he tells it to do. She backed the EU to the hilt when it pushed free trade in the Single European Act: the very type of reform against which Mr Schroeder has now taken up arms, When he ruled in Hanover he sat ex officio on the board of Volkswagen, thanks to Lower Saxony's large stake in the company, and he is damned if he will consent to legislation which might allow VW to become a takeover target. That is not how German capitalism works: national ownership of great enterprises matters far more to the Germans than it does to the British and if that's the way they want to play it, good luck to them. It would be absurd to let free-market dogma cut us off from a nation state which has developed a different tradition. If the Germans want to forget what Ludwig Erhard taught them, that is a matter for them.

Meanwhile there is everything to be said in this British nation of ostriches for loosening up a bit on the subject of Europe. As the fridges pile up in the fields, people will eventually ask whence came the law that makes it impossible to dispose of them. A condescending smile may then be raised at the expense of the hopelessly old-fashioned bureaucracy which caused such a fiasco. And if Mr Schroeder wishes to repeal the Single European Act, a dangerous extension of European power against which alone among the British press The Spectator warned at the time, I for one would be happy to make common cause with him.

Peter Obome is away.