LONDON -- Margaret Thatcher made one thing abundantly clear: She doesn't like Europe or Europeans -- especially Germany and Germans. According to German sources, when Chancellor Helmut Kohl once protested that his countrymen had proved themselves to be good Europeans for the past 45 years and asked what more was needed before full acceptance, the former prime minister responded: "Another 45 years!"
From the Thatcher perspective, unification of the two Germanys threatened to produce an efficient economic colossus that would dominate the continent and reduce Britain to a minor supporting role in a unified Europe.
Thatcher and her supporters were unable to accept, says Gary T. Miller, director of the Federal Trust for Education and Research, "that the progress of European union was inevitable, and that its economic justifications were subordinate to its political objectives."
Now, under a new prime minister, 47-year-old John Major, a new era will slowly open up in Great Britain: Miller speculates that Thatcher's departure "will mark the last gasp of nationalism" among the larger states of Europe that could seriously threaten Europe's drive toward a single market in 1992.
But it's a long jump from that much progress to an assumption that the track is clear for the ultimate symbol of European political integration, the proposed European central bank. Monetary union, Major has said, is "a distant vision in European eyes, with no indication of how you actually get there." And Major is not alone in that cautious approach: There is resistance in other important places in Europe to pressure the Brussels bureaucracy to rush a central bank to completion, imposing a single monetary discipline over the 12 countries in the Common Market.
In separate interviews last week in Frankfurt, German central bank President Karl Otto Poehl and Deutsche Bank head Hilmar Kopper cast serious doubt on the possibility that the current Jan. 1, 1994, target date for creation of the bank can be met. Poehl assured that a European central bank could not possibly evolve until 1997, and maybe later.
"And who knows whether European monetary union will be better or worse" than the system of coordination now in effect, Poehl said. He will signal his view that the approach should be slow and deliberate when the European committee he chairs submits a draft statute for a European central bank.
Poehl doesn't want to trade in the power and influence of his German central bank for a less independent European institution. If there is to be a European central bank, he wants it to be one in which the pursuit of price stability, as in the Bundesbank, is the single most important goal. It would have to have "a monopoly of money creation," he says, reducing all the other national banks to mere operational arms of the central authority.
Kopper, who succeeded Alfred Herrhausen -- assassinated a year ago -- as the board spokesman of Germany's No. 1 bank, said that "if we'd like to have that Europe we're all talking about, we must also have a European central bank and monetary union." But he agrees such a bank "will only be able to operate if we all forgo national sovereignty. And that is a political decision, a political process -- it has nothing to do with central bankers."
He has his doubts that other countries, unused to the kind of credibility enjoyed by the relatively independent Bundesbank, will be ready to cede a European bank the necessary authority to operate free of political influence. To get agreement on such a system by 1994 is unrealistic, Kopper believes, adding only: "I think we have a chance to see the monetary and economic union by the end of the century."
Kopper voiced the hope that Major will "bring a new voice to the table." Last July, it will be remembered, former British trade minister Nicholas Ridley said that the proposed European monetary union "is all a German racket designed to take over the whole of Europe."
For that public indiscretion, Thatcher had to fire Ridley. But the view he expressed mirrored Thatcher's. She was upset not only by the prospect of a monetary union that could apply economic discipline to an inflationary British economy, but by the fact that German unification would further establish Germany as the strongest country in Europe.
The important question now, of course, is how far Major will go to alter British attitudes toward Europe. As chancellor of the exchequer, Major persuaded Thatcher in October to allow Britain to join the Exchange Rate Mechanism of the European Monetary System, fixing the exchange rate between the pound and the mark. That further enhanced the role of the mark as a key international currency -- in effect, the standard for all of Europe -- and, as Poehl said, gave greater credibility to Thatcher's efforts to control inflation.
Major then put forward a proposal for a new, "hard" European currency unit that would be used along with the existing 12 European currencies. It might have been considered a serious negotiating gambit had not Thatcher made clear she regarded it as a stall to frustrate further progress toward European unity. It was this tactic that led to Sir Geoffrey Howe's denunciation of her and her subsequent downfall.
The future scenario of British-European relationships remains to be played out. It will take time. There is no reason to doubt that the suspicion of Germany articulated by Ridley is still deeply embedded among large groups of Britons who remember two costly wars in this century. Even some in Britain who believe that their country's economic future depends on full integration into Europe privately confess a residual discomfort with Germany's growing power.