WASHINGTON, March 22 (UPI) -- Imagine the following quote from a history text. Is it a history of the Soviet Union looking back from today's vantage point, or of the European Union looking back a decade from today?
"By that period, most academic and government analysts had accepted the fundamental permanence of the two great continental blocs. Most accepted it was inevitable; many said that it was in reality a good thing that the power of the United States be offset by another similar-size power. Still others preferred the social model of the rival bloc, with its emphasis on practical, tangible benefits as opposed to "negative rights" consisting primarily of things the government should not be able to do to the individual.
"Looking back, what was remarkable was the way the warning signs had gone ignored. It is easy now to quote the voices who pointed out the structural problems, the looming demographic and fiscal crises, and the fundamental unworkability of the social model the bloc was dedicated to preserving in the face of the accelerating technological and social dynamism of the American social model. Even after the Afghan conflict vividly demonstrated the growing military gap between the two blocs, most observers continued to complacently predict the permanence of the division between the blocs, and even anticipate a gradual conversion of the two models.
"It was only after Margaret Thatcher boldly declared that the emperor had no clothes that people began to take a cold, hard look at the reality of the situation. Although her statement was widely ridiculed by the chattering classes at the time it was made, her call, in retrospect a mere statement of the obvious, was in fact the first visible milestone on the road to the crisis of the Union."
Of course, some will say it is outrageous to compare the two Unions. The Soviet Union never had a free election in its entire existence, whereas even the most recently democratic of the European Union's members have had free elections for several decades now. The Soviet Union crushed the initiative of its citizens; the European Union has a lively private sector. Civil rights were nonexistent in the Soviet Union, while the European Union's member-states are all firmly under the rule of law. The member republics of the Soviet Union, even when they held U.N. seats, had only a theoretical right to secede, while European union member-states have a clearly stated right to withdraw.
Well, actually, I'm exaggerating about the last. The Soviet constitution contained the right of secession, whereas the European treaties are silent on the matter.
Yet still the comparison bears thinking about, if only to point out that received opinion isn't very good at foreseeing disruptions in the status quo, and that warning signs that are obvious in retrospect can be ignored by those who would not see.
So, when the lady with the handbag drops the other shoe, it's worth paying attention. In this case, it is Lady Thatcher, who followed last year's draconian warning against Britain joining the European Monetary Union with a measured warning in her new book, Statecraft. In it she called for Britain to begin a measured disengagement from the more problematic European institutions, and, if it could not do so, to begin preparations to withdraw entirely.
For the first time, a figure as prominent as a former prime minister, and one of the most stunningly successful in British history, has offered definitive criteria for when and under what circumstances the United Kingdom should withdraw from the European Union.
The criticisms have been fast and furious, of course. But it's worth noting that the most vociferous have come from people like Chris Patten, who have also been the most vocal critics of the American-led war against the radical Islamists. In my mind, this only goes to further validate Thatcher's thesis.
Now that the question is laid on the table, British Europhiles must answer at least in some perfunctory manner the question of "why is Britain in the European Union?" This is new. For the past 25 years, a "you must be barking mad" reaction has greeted any suggestion that British participation in the EU is an issue that must be examined from time to time on the basis of a national cost-benefit analysis. This won't do anymore. Now the argument must shift to an actual tallying-up of pros versus cons.
Furthermore, her position raises to Europhiles: "Are there any circumstances under which you would admit that the United Kingdom would have to leave the EU? Any whatsoever? Tax harmonization? Pension harmonization? Renaming Waterloo Station?"
But the most interesting thing about the Thatcher proposal was that it was not an all-out "Britain doesn't belong in the EU" position. Her program of partial disengagement and withdrawal from the agricultural and common defense and security policies, combined with multiple trade links, is actually a worthwhile destination in and of itself, and one I would not bet that the Continentals wouldn't accept before the dust settled.
In fact, a multiple-speed, variable-geometry Europe is the best of all possible solutions. By making another model of European cooperation accessible to other European states, it creates a competitive alternative to further European bureaucratic centralization, an alternative the benefits of which other EU members might shortly start asking why they, too, should not enjoy.
Lady Thatcher has outsmarted most of her opponents throughout most of her life. It's clear she has decided this is the last major thing she wants. I wouldn't bet she won't get it. She and Reagan saw together what most thought impossible, that the Soviet Union's day was done and just needed some firm resistance.
Maybe she's on to something with regard to this Union as well.
To reach James Bennett, send an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.