BRITISH Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher is widely depicted as the grinch who would steal European unity. Both in Western Europe and at home, Mrs. Thatcher has been chided of late for her resistance to the movement toward a single European monetary system and, beyond that, tighter European political integration. Thatcher has her obdurate side. But the portrayal of her as close-minded, Union Jackish, and obstructionist on European unity is unfair. She is simply cautious, and with good reason.
In recent years, economic and political trends have made the longtime dream of European unity seem more feasible than ever before. In 1987 the 12 members of the European Community agreed to eliminate all internal trade barriers by 1992. Subsequently, under the leadership of EC president Jacques Delors, a commission devised a plan calling for an integrated European monetary system, with a single currency and one central bank. Some Europeans even see a United States of Europe just over the horizon.
Thatcher has been openly skeptical of aspects of the vision, especially in its more grandiose political dimensions. Perhaps she has even unnecessarily dragged her feet in some regards, as on bringing Britain into the European Monetary System's mechanism for managing exchange-rate fluctuations. Overall, though, her insistence on proceeding painstakingly, on thoroughly vetting every step of this historically monumental development, is wise.
Europe - which until 44 years ago saw a major war every generation or two for centuries - is sailing into promising but uncharted waters. In a process so complex, moreover, there's room for hidden agendas. Some Britons worry that economic harmonization will be used to reverse, ``through the back door,'' free-market gains introduced by Thatcher.
Europe should proceed purposefully but circumspectly: which is how we read Thatcher's approach. She made key concessions at the EC summit just ended in Madrid, allowing the process to go forward, but she refused to be stampeded into making commitments far into the future. What's wrong with prudence?