WASHINGTON, Dec. 23 (UPI) -- Call it the Curse of Thatcher, though some might see it as a blessing. The spirit of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher is looming triumphantly over the European Union that she disliked so much, and which she has changed so profoundly.
The evidence of her success is plain in the two quite extraordinary developments that are shaking the EU this week, in the wake of the collapse of the Brussels summit 10 days ago. The most startling is that for the first time in the 46-year history of the European integration project, a joint initiative by France and Germany, the power couple that has traditionally set Europe's course, is being strongly resisted by the others.
The other development is almost as stunning. The Franco-German proposal for the EU to become a two-speed body, with a hard core of committed federalists driving on to "ever-closer union" while the faint-hearts lag behind, has managed to split the original six, the countries that started the EU project with the Treaty of Rome in 1957.
Two of the founding members, Italy and Luxemburg, have condemned the Franco-German proposal for a "core Europe" (the term comes from the German phrase Kern Europa, referring to a hard core of committed Europeans).
"It would not be in the spirit of the founding countries to set up an axis of six countries, which would be seen by the rest as cutting Europe into two parts," declared Italy's Foreign Minister Franco Frattini.
In an interview with the Belgian daily La Libre Belgique, Jean-Claude Juncker, prime minister of Luxembourg, politely dismissed the Franco-German proposal as "premature." He added a two-speed Europe "is not a goal in itself" and regretted that some founding members gave the impression of wanting to go further at any price.
Britain, Poland, Sweden, Denmark and Portugal have rejected the idea. Most strikingly, the usually passionately pro-European Ireland, which has enjoyed an annual injection of funds worth 3 percent of Ireland's gross domestic product for the past 30 years, has also told the Franco-German duo to forget it.
"The idea of a two-speed Europe or of a hard core, where certain countries would try to implement their agenda separately from the others, does not correspond to the common philosophy of the union," said Irish premier Bertie Ahern, who takes over the rotating presidency of the EU Council on Jan. 1.
What has all this to do with Thatcher? She has been out of office for 13 years -- longer than her reign as Britain's longest-serving prime minister since World War II. But her legacy for Europe has been profound, in three fundamental ways.
First, she was the driving political force behind the creation of the EU's single market, the legislation that created a full free-trade zone with common technical standards that did more than anything else to create a common EU economic system. Her appointee as commissioner, Lord Arthur Cockfield, drafted the legislation, and she teamed up with then EU Commission President Jacques Delors to drive it forward.
Second, she insisted that just as the EU had grown and flourished under the American security umbrella, the Atlantic Alliance of NATO must remain the core of European security, and no delusions of some putative European superstate should be allowed to undermine the essential American partnership.
Third, a year before the fall of the Berlin Wall, she delivered at Bruges a speech that charted the future enlargement of the EU to include the Cold War's orphans, the countries of Eastern Europe dragooned into the Soviet embrace.
"We must never forget that East of the Iron Curtain peoples who once enjoyed a full share of European culture, freedom and identity have been cut off from their roots," she declared. "We shall always look on Warsaw, Prague and Budapest as great European cities."
In many ways, this triple Thatcherite legacy defines today's EU, or at least the central issues that command its attention. A more open and entrepreneurial EU, the pivotal question of the American relationship, and the next stage of enlargement that brings in the Eastern Europeans on May 1, can all be traced to her.
Those are the themes that underpin the current EU crisis. Enlargement means the EU is now too big and sprawling to be run by the Franco-German axis, and the new members' recognition of their debt to NATO and the United States for their freedom means that the guiding principle of security will be Atlanticist, whatever Gaullist dream of an EU superpower may seduce the imaginations of Paris.
EU may be too uncharitable a place ever to erect her statue in Brussels in tribute. But in the collapse of the Franco-German duopoly that Thatcher's new Europe has brought about, we are seeing her delayed triumph unfold.