PRIME Minister Margaret Thatcher is setting out to modify her long-established reputation as the ``odd woman out'' of European politics. After more than a decade spent vigorously defending what her critics say is a narrow view of Europe's future and Britain's part in it, her closest colleagues are beginning to detect changes of perspective and emphasis.
In a widely noted interview on Dec. 12, Mrs. Thatcher softened her hitherto rigid stance on whether Britain should become a full member of the European Monetary System (EMS) before the next general election. She said she now had an ``open mind'' on the question.
At meetings of her Cabinet, the prime minister is allowing policy toward the European Community (EC) to be fully debated, and encouraging Douglas Hurd, the new foreign secretary, to play a leading part in the discussions.
Previously Thatcher laid down the law on policy toward the EC in no uncertain terms and allowed only limited consideration by Cabinet ministers.
According to a senior government source here, the prime minister has recognized that at the Strasbourg summit of the EC (Dec. 8 and 9) Britain's position was one of almost total isolation on the EMS and on proposals for an EC social charter detailing workers' rights.
``The PM is determined not to let such a situation arise again,'' the source said.
There is reason to think, however, that the evolving Thatcher stance on Europe has more complex origins. Finding herself in a highly publicized minority of one at the Strasbourg summit was only part of the reason for a policy rethink at 10 Downing Street.
A senior Conservative backbencher who voted for Thatcher in the party leadership contest two weeks ago and who serves on the influential House of Commons foreign affairs committee noted three other reasons:
Developments in Eastern Europe will require the EC to remain united on key policy questions. For Britain to continue making criticisms from the sidelines weakens the EC's capacity to respond to fast-moving events in Europe's other half.
President Bush's speech to NATO leaders in Brussels in early December endorsed the need for greater EC unity, and put heavy pressure on Thatcher to curb her tendency to assert a unilateral British view.
The prime minister is under pressure from within her ruling Conservative Party to adopt a more constructive stance on European questions. Her Labour opponents, according to recent public opinion polls, are coming to be seen as basically sympathetic to European unity.
The first clue to Thatcher's change of approach on Europe came in fact at the Strasbourg summit. She put her case against early British membership in the exchange-rate mechanism, but did not hammer it home in her accustomed manner.
Next year's intergovernmental conference on economic and monetary union and on the creation of a European bank was ``premature'' and ``unnecessary,'' Thatcher said. But when asked whether Britain would boycott the conference, she replied: ``The empty chair isn't a British invention. We are not going to practice it. We are for a Europe that is dynamic and steadily moving forward.'' She used similar tactics over the social charter. Its adoption, she said, though unwelcome, ``would be less than a tragedy.''
At past EC summits, the Thatcher style has always been to put the British case vigorously and at considerable length.
Thatcher's Dec. 12 interview in the Financial Times of London, however, made it clear that she has changed her tone, if not her tune. She conceded that at the Madrid summit of the EC earlier in the year Britain had agreed to join the exchange rate mechanism, and that its conditions were ``not rigid.''
She went on: ``I am not looking at it as taking a whole page of graph paper and making a dot in each square. Life is not like that. What matters is when the conditions are broadly met. We entered into an obligation, and the obligation will be met.''
Suggestions that such remarks constitute a sea change in Thatcher's approach to Europe are publicly discounted by her Labour Party opponents, who are eager to see her continue to be perceived as isolated on Europe. But privately Labour members of Parliament concede that the prime minister's change of tone on EC questions is obvious.
Gerald Kaufman, the party's foreign affairs spokesman, said: ``President Bush gave her no option. He told her, in effect: `Accept the need for European unity or you will not have my support.'''
In Brussels at the EC headquarters, a more subtle explanation of Thatcher's apparent ``U-turn'' is being entertained. A month before the Strasbourg summit, Leon Brittan, a senior EC commissioner and a former Thatcher Cabinet member, delivered a blunt speech in London. He contrasted Thatcher's style of ``saying no to many important proposals'' with the French technique of ``saying yes and then arguing from within.'' If Britain wanted to wield influence in the EC, he said, that was how to do it.
Mr. Hurd is said to have taken Mr. Brittan's advice to heart and worked his own version of it into a strategy memorandum submitted to the Cabinet and approved by it before the Strasbourg summit.