COLUMN ONE : The Odd Couple of Europe : Margaret Thatcher and Jacques Delors are almost perfectly incompatible. Their stormy political relationship may shape the continent’s future<i> .</i>


He is the most powerful nonelected figure in Western Europe. She is the prime minister who has dominated the region’s politics as no other figure of her generation.

They clash openly and often and agree on little.

They are Western Europe’s odd couple.

In ideas, philosophy and personality, Jacques Delors, president of the European Community’s Executive Commission, and Britain’s Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher are almost totally incompatible. In the genteel club of Europe’s democratic leaders, they engage in a rare, highly visible struggle of personal wills.

But there is more than personal pyrotechnics to this battle.

Thatcher and Delors personify a broader struggle over the central question of what Europe should become as the 12 member nations of the European Community push toward greater unity.


Should the 12 be merely a glorified free-trade zone of like-minded states a la Thatcher, or, in Delors’ vision, a fully integrated union--the continent’s economic and political epicenter, bound as much by a common social ethos as by commercial necessity?

In a recent interview with The Times, Delors sketched his vision of the European Community’s potential. He proposes regular summits between American and European Community presidents, envisions extensive community support to help East Bloc countries nurture democracy and suggests the community as the framework for a rapprochement between the two Germanys.

That such talk is taken seriously is largely due to Delors’ success in a job many now see as the closest thing Western Europe has to a president.

From the day that the former French finance minister settled into his top-floor office at the European Community’s Brussels headquarters nearly five years ago, Western Europe has never been quite the same.

Delors took a demoralized community, paralyzed by budget disputes and ballooning farm subsidies, and gave it such momentum that Thatcher and her followers today fret that its growing power could overwhelm that of the member states.

Delors’ blueprint is radical, calling on member states to dismantle age-old frontiers and build the world’s single largest consumer market.

He set a deadline of Dec. 31, 1992, for achieving this internal market, then, like some pinstripe-suited pitchman, sold his dream to a Western Europe eager to escape the years of “Euro-pessimism” and “Euro-sclerosis.”

His message was simple: unify or decline.

Soon, all 12 heads of government had agreed to the historic process.

Even Thatcher, isolated and apparently off-guard at the speed of it all, was swept along.

Delors’ plan, incorporated in what became the Single European Act, pledged the leaders not just to the single internal market by 1992, but to the larger idea of eventual full economic, monetary, and political union.

But as Delors presses, encourages and cajoles the European countries toward greater unity, Thatcher mounts a series of delaying actions.

“She sees herself as some kind of resistance fighter in the mountains that’s simply not going to let Big Brother take over from Brussels,” said Britain’s opposition Labor Party leader, Neil Kinnock.

In many ways, Thatcher and Delors, who are both 64, personify their respective traditions.

Thatcher stems from a Protestant, individualist tradition. She imbibed English pragmatism, is first and foremost a British patriot, an ardent Atlanticist and instinctively skeptical of the rhetoric of grand ideas--especially those emanating from across the English Channel.

As a teen-ager from a northern English town, she felt only the distant rumblings of World War II, which so decimated the continent and led the European Community’s founding fathers to see their creation first and foremost as a means to ensure that war never again comes to Europe.

By contrast, Delors, a teen-ager in Nazi-occupied France, personifies a continental, postwar wariness of nationalism, a need to seek consensus and the ability to nurture a dream.

“She is Anglican; I am Catholic. So, we believe in the same God, but in this life, we don’t have the same views,” Delors said of the British prime minister.

When asked why she has problems getting along with Delors, Thatcher seemed surprised by the question.

“But he’s a socialist,” she exclaimed. “and from the extreme wing of socialists.”

Although Thatcher supports community efforts to remove commercial barriers, she is the most outspoken advocate of an important body of opinion that believes European unity should stop there.

Certainly, her vision of a fully unified European Community is bleak.

She warns of a Europe ruled by gray Brussels technocrats intent on crushing national sovereignties and cultures into some European Pablum.

Talk of political, monetary and economic union, Thatcher proclaims, is “airy fairy and absurd.”

Last year, Delors buoyantly predicted the beginnings of an “embryonic” European government in Brussels and said that within 10 years 80% of all economic and perhaps tax and social legislation would be handled at community rather than national levels. Thatcher bristled.

“I think he was wrong and went over the top,” she said.

Later, in a speech in October, 1988, in Bruges, Belgium, she elaborated:

“We have not successfully rolled back the frontiers of the state in Britain only to see them reimposed at a European level, with a European superstate exercising a new dominance from Brussels.”

Exactly one year later, at the same Bruges platform, Delors answered Thatcher with a plea to quicken the unifying process.

“History is accelerating,” he said. “We must also accelerate.”

Their clashes proliferate.

As Delors pushes to abolish border controls, Thatcher insists they are essential to fight terrorism, drugs and illegal immigrants.

A so-called social charter of workers’ rights assuring decent wages and working conditions--a charter seen by Delors as an important statement of common European values--is dismissed by Thatcher as Marxist.

While Delors talks of monetary union, Thatcher scoffs at the idea of a single currency and one European central bank.

“I neither want nor expect ever to see such a bank in my lifetime, nor, if I’m twanging a harp, for quite a long time afterwards,” she declared.

Even on minor issues, she fights.

When European Community health ministers tried to regulate the size of health warnings on cigarette packages, Thatcher was enraged that the organization should even consider such trivia.

“They will soon be telling you how many minutes you should have for a (TV) program,” she huffed. “Goodness gracious me.”

Despite such carping, advocates of greater European unity admit, Thatcher has made positive contributions. For example, she has led a fight for greater fiscal discipline in the community and frequently focuses on practicalities rather than the grand plans outlined by other leaders.

But increasingly, she swims against the tide.

Even in Britain, where anti-Brussels rhetoric was once a sure vote-getter, Thatcher’s stridently nationalist views sound off-key with a more pro-community mood.

Often outnumbered 11 to 1 in community votes, Thatcher has been forced into a series of tactical retreats.

Her most recent step back came last June when she agreed to join the 11 others in the first tentative steps toward monetary union.

After hearing of her insistence that she had only committed herself to the initial step, Delors couldn’t resist.

“I understand a political striptease contains a number of stages . . . ,” he commented wryly.

Soft-spoken, intense, precise and serious in personal discussions, Delors is a highly respected financial wizard, credited with turning around a struggling French economy in the early 1980s before tackling the European Community as none of his predecessors had.

“He now stands as the most creative, effective leader that the European Community has ever had,” said Dick Leonard, a former British member of Parliament and a respected observer of community affairs in Brussels.

By contrast, Thatcher is an extrovert who breezily dismisses tough problems as simple and is quick to lecture those who disagree.

Still, despite their differences, the two leaders have some remarkable similarities.

Each springs from modest beginnings. Delors, the son of a minor bank official, was reared in a working-class Paris suburb. Thatcher, a grocer’s daughter, lived over the family shop.

They remain largely untouched by the trappings of power.

Delors walks to work from a modest apartment in central Brussels and will dine with his chauffeur on the road, while Thatcher has been known to cook supper for flagging aides toiling into the night.

They are both high-achieving political loners, devoid of the cronies that surround many leaders.

They are also distanced from their respective national and party elites. Thatcher is a woman in a man’s world; her undistinguished roots run counter to her Conservative Party’s blueblood tradition. Delors is a Roman Catholic socialist, educated at night school rather than the exclusive Ecole Nationale d'Administration. He didn’t join the French Socialist Party until he was in his 40s.

Both keep punishing schedules.

In Brussels, community officials joke that Delors comes to work with the Danes at 8 in the morning and leaves with the Spaniards at 10 at night. Thatcher works a similar schedule and fails to distinguish between leisure and laziness.

Neither suffers fools.

Thatcher’s scorn for a minister uncertain of his ground is legendary, while Delors harangues his commissioners, frequently with a sense of exasperation.

On one legendary occasion in late 1987, as the community’s momentum seemed to be slipping, an exasperated Delors tore into his colleagues, reportedly at one point telling Greek commissioner Grigoris Varsis that he was incapable of running a bar.

It was an incident uncharacteristic in its intensity, according to one former commissioner, for which Delors later apologized.

“He has a quick temper. He’s outspoken and sometimes gets excited faster than he needs to,” said one diplomat who knows him well. “Combine those three things, and you get a person who can be explosive.”

But Delors’ genius is his ability to combine his vision of European unity with a negotiator’s skill to blend 12 diverse views into realistic, workable compromises.

His efforts to get the central bankers from all 12 member countries to agree to a three-step plan for European monetary union is seen both as a tribute to his personal prestige in the field of finance and to his negotiating skills.

Although Thatcher and Delors each exhibit a degree of grudging respect for the other’s sense of purpose, their personal relationship is marked by a strained politeness.

It is said to have nose-dived after Thatcher forgot--or decided not--to introduce Delors at a 1986 post-community summit news conference that she hosted in London.

When Delors later refused to answer a reporter’s question, Thatcher’s light-hearted quip that he must be the strong, silent type merely exacerbated the situation.

Their next major clash is expected to come at the community summit in Strasbourg, France, in December, when the 12 leaders are scheduled to debate the social charter of basic workers’ rights so important to Delors.

Predictably, Thatcher remains skeptical.

“It’s not a social charter,” she sniffed. “It’s a socialist charter.”