Jacques Delors, who has died at the age of 98, will be remembered as one of the most talented, visionary — and divisive — figures of post-second world war Europe.
A thinker on a grand scale, Delors devoted 10 years in Brussels, between 1985 and 1995, and his subsequent public life, to one overarching goal: the creation of a united Europe able to punch its weight on the world stage next to the US and other powers such as China, India, Japan and Russia. But the multiple crises into which the EU fell in the first two decades of the 21st century threatened to halt and even reverse elements of this project.
The building blocks of his enterprise were twofold: the single European market for capital, labour, goods and services; and economic and monetary union. Delors also presided over the EU’s increase in size from a 10 to a then 15-nation club of mainly western European democracies.
Now the EU is a different creature — a continent-wide bloc with 27 member states, which for more than a decade has struggled with emergency financial rescues of countries, the mass arrival of refugees, climate change, Brexit, war in Ukraine and other challenges that were barely on the horizon in Delors’ heyday. Even so, almost three decades after he left office, today’s Europe still bears his indelible mark.
Delors’ contribution to the European cause rivals those of Jean Monnet, Walter Hallstein and Robert Schuman, the founding fathers of the European Economic Community, launched in 1958. As an elder statesman he was Europe’s equivalent of Henry Kissinger, the former US secretary of state, and Lee Kuan Yew, the late prime minister of Singapore.
Yet the Delors decade coincided with a polarisation of public opinion over European integration. No doubt the recession of the early 1990s and the forces of nationalism let loose by the end of the cold war were partly to blame. But Delors admitted that he might have over-reached himself in his final years as president of the European Commission.
His combination of intellectual rigour, wry humour and combative politics irritated some Europeans, especially in the UK, who abhorred or took a more detached view of his plans for closer integration. In his native France, his support for a federation of European states under Franco-German leadership provoked severe criticism. In Germany, despite admiration for the early support he gave to unification in 1990, his name became a byword for Brussels’ meddling.
Delors did not fit easily into political categories. A moderate leftist in his youth, he did not join France’s Socialist party until 1974, when he was almost 50. He was a Christian trade unionist who served under a Gaullist prime minister, Jacques Chaban-Delmas. His Roman Catholicism made him an unusual figure on the French left, with its anticlerical and secularist traditions.
Delors met and married his wife, Marie Lephaille, in 1948. The elder of their two children is Martine Aubry, who followed her father into politics and led the French Socialist party from 2008 to 2012. The younger was Jean-Paul Delors, a journalist who died of leukaemia in 1982 at the age of 29.
Born in Paris on July 20 1925, Delors started his career at the Banque de France, the central bank, in 1945 and stayed there until 1962. After seven years at the state planning committee, he worked from 1969 to 1972 as an adviser to Chaban-Delmas. In 1979 he was elected to the European parliament, a position he held for two years before François Mitterrand, the first Socialist president of France’s Fifth Republic, summoned him to Paris to be finance minister.
In this capacity, during a turbulent three years from 1981 to 1984, Delors steered Mitterrand’s U-turn from hazardous, leftist economic experiments to sober, market-oriented policies. He stabilised France’s economy, earning himself a reputation for sound financial skills and management expertise. Throughout his career, however, his Christian faith and left-of-centre views drove him to seek a balance between fiscal responsibility, market liberalisation, protection of workers’ rights and social welfare.
Summing up his economic philosophy as commission president, he said: “The European economic model has to be based on three principles: competition which stimulates, co-operation which strengthens and solidarity which unites.”
Delors maintained a prodigious work rate and demanded no less of his commission colleagues. One secret of his success was his intensive preparation for the summit meetings that made the big decisions on Europe’s future. Only Margaret Thatcher, the British prime minister who became his great political rival in the 1980s, could rival his mastery of detail.
Delors arrived in Brussels in 1985 after being picked for the commission presidency by Mitterrand and Helmut Kohl, West Germany’s chancellor. Bursting with ideas about a single European currency and a common European defence, he soon realised that he would have to proceed more slowly than he might have wished. In his first four-year term he confined himself largely to the project of creating a barrier-free internal market by 1992.
This idea had first appeared in the Treaty of Rome, signed in 1957 by Belgium, France, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and West Germany. Yet the single market was more than an antidote to Europe’s slow growth and its failure to create enough jobs. Delors understood that the 1992 programme and its legislative counterpart, the Single European Act of 1986 which came into effect in 1987, were highly political.
The 1986 Act provided not only for the free circulation of capital, goods and services but also people. Delors was later to describe it as his finest achievement: a slim treaty, with plenty of muscle and no fat, which laid the foundations for a united Europe. His experience with the follow-up Maastricht treaty on European Union, agreed in 1991 but signed in 1992, was less agreeable.
Maastricht’s origins lay in a vision of European economic and monetary union first mooted in 1970 by Pierre Werner, then Luxembourg prime minister. It was derailed by the oil crisis of the 1970s and subsequent international monetary turmoil.
Delors believed in the project as the indispensable complement to a single market and as the tool for breaking the Bundesbank’s monetary hegemony. He appreciated that West Germans would not abandon the Deutsche mark unless they received guarantees that Europe’s new central bank would be cast in a similar mould, independent of political pressure and powerful enough to protect their currency’s value. “Not all Germans believe in God but they all believe in the Bundesbank,” he quipped.
Delors drove the project forward in the face of opposition from EU central bankers, led by the Bundesbank, and from Thatcher. An implacable opponent, she denounced his schemes for a federal Europe in a memorable 1988 speech. Two weeks earlier, Delors had addressed Britain’s Trades Union Congress and had enraged Thatcher by calling for an extension of European workers’ rights in areas such as collective bargaining, life-long education and representation on company boards.
Suspicions of Delors and his proposed currency union ran high in the UK. In November 1990 The Sun, the nation’s best-selling tabloid, splashed the headline “Up Yours Delors” across the front page of an article that chauvinistically warned him to “frog off” and not try to abolish the pound. That outburst aside, and against expectations, Delors succeeded in pinning down a timetable for reaching monetary union in three stages by the end of the century.
Yet his preoccupation with “locking in” Germany to a single currency — the euro — by 1999 came at a price. He underestimated the country’s interest in European political union, a project designed to compensate for the loss of the Deutsche mark and to ensure that non-inflationary economic policies would be kept permanently in place across the unified currency area. These issues came back to haunt European leaders. Like many others, Delors was also slow to grasp how the collapse of communism and the Soviet Union’s demise in 1991 made it necessary to rethink the political architecture of Europe.
After much hard bargaining, the Maastricht treaty emerged in December 1991. Despite its promise of “European Union”, the treaty was a compromise that went to the heart of the ambiguities of postwar European history. Far from creating a European superstate, the bogeyman of British eurosceptics, Maastricht balanced the enduring power of the nation state against the public’s resistance to faster political integration.
Delors saw Maastricht as an opportunity missed. The irony was that he came to be associated with a treaty that in many ways he despised, though this may have been a legacy of his high profile in the 1980s, when he earned the tag “Mr Europe” and made the ill-advised boast that in 10 years “80 per cent of our economic legislation . . . will be of [European] Community origin”.
Many politicians would have crumpled under the onslaught which characterised the Maastricht ratification process. The Danish “No” in a 1992 referendum; the currency crises leading to the virtual collapse of the European exchange rate mechanism in 1993; and a recession that pushed the number of people out of work in Europe to almost 20mn: all these combined to threaten to drive a stake into Delors’ ambitions.
Delors was critical of the deep-seated suspicion of free markets found across much of the French political spectrum. Towards the climax of the Gatt world trade talks in 1992-93 he warned his countrymen that protectionist-led opposition to a deal risked creating a new “Maginot mentality” in France, a reference to the ill-fated effort to build a defensive wall against German military aggression in the 1930s.
Delors’ exit from Brussels in 1995 marked the end of a political era, especially once he decided, after much agonising, against entering the race for the French presidency eventually won by Jacques Chirac. Mitterrand and Kohl, Delors’ two partners in the great leap forward in European integration, were on their way out. By steering clear of an election campaign, Delors ducked the chance to put the case for a strategic bargain between France and Germany on political and economic union in Europe.
In 1996 Delors set up Notre Europe, a think-tank also known as the Jacques Delors Institute, devoted to progressive economic and social goals as well as European unity. In a Daily Telegraph interview in 2011, he blamed the post-2009 eurozone crises on “a combination of the stubbornness of the Germanic idea of monetary control and the absence of a clear vision from all the other countries”.
Delors seemed doubtful that the EU would pull itself out of its troubles. He told The Telegraph: “Jean Monnet used to say that when Europe has a crisis, it comes out of the crisis stronger . . . but there are some, like me, who think that Monnet was being very optimistic.” Referring to Antonio Gramsci, an Italian Marxist philosopher, he said: “I am like Gramsci. I have pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will.”
It was not until Ursula von der Leyen took over in 2019 that the European Commission regained its role as the motor of integration with its responses to the pandemic and Russia’s war against Ukraine. Von der Leyen is now seen as the strongest commission president since her French predecessor but Europe may never again see one with the same stature as Delors.
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