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Jacques Delors shaped the Europe we know today

An obituary for Jacques Delors by Jacques Delors Centre Co-Director Johannes Lindner.

The EU as we know it today bears the signature of Jacques Delors. When he was President of the Commission, Europe underwent an almost magical transformation. A farewell to the founding father of the single market by Johannes Lindner appeared in ZEIT (in German) on 29 December 2023.

Read English translation of Johannes Lindner’s guest commentary below.

He shaped the Europe that we know today

A farewell to the founding father of the single market: Today’s European Union essentially emerged in the ten years that Jacques Delors was Commission President.

When Jacques Delors took over the European Commission Presidency in 1985, nobody would have bet a penny on Europe. Eurosclerosis*, a loss of competitiveness, paralysing political tensions between national governments, and milk lakes as a symbol of the excesses of a misguided agricultural policy – these were the keywords of the debate about the European Communities (as it was still called in those days).

When Delors left his post ten years later, the EC had become the European Union (EU), its budget had been reformed, the single market project had been completed, the "Erasmus" exchange programme for European students was in full swing, the "Schengen Area" had been established, and the euro as a common currency was on its way. In short, the EU as we know it today bears the signature of Commission President Jacques Delors, as it was under his leadership that the European Communities underwent an almost magical transformation.

When Jacques Delors was born in Paris on 25 July 1925, no one could have foreseen that he would become one of the most important and at the same time most unusual architects of European unification. Delors grew up in rather modest circumstances. The experiences of the First World War were very present in his family, as was the turmoil that the Second World War would bring just a few years later. Following the wishes of his father, who was a messenger at the French central bank, the young Delors also began his training at the central bank. There he soon attracted attention for his analytical skills and iron discipline (which, for example, led him to attend courses at Sciences Po in Paris in the evening after work).

Banker and trade unionist

It was also unusual that this central banker was at the same time a trade unionist. He was actively involved in the Christian trade union movement, where he learnt how to negotiate wages and working conditions. Throughout his life, he maintained a self-conception of standing up for the rights of the weak. As a somewhat different kind of civil servant, he joined the French government's economic planning staff and became an adviser to a conservative prime minister in 1969. In this role, he developed new social policy strategies.

The technocrat only became a politician late in life: he joined the Socialist Party in the mid-1970s, and it was not until 1979 that he took up a political office when he was elected as a member of the European Parliament, which was directly elected for the first time that year. As in politics, where he combined Christian Democratic and Social Democratic elements, he saw Europe as a "federation of nation states" that ensured peace and overcame national egoisms, but which did not replace the diversity of nations.

After François Mitterrand's victory in the French presidential elections two years later, Delors returned to Paris as Finance Minister. Here he formed a counterweight to the radical economic policy ideas within the new socialist government. This made him a French candidate when the post of President of the European Commission was open, one whom the German Christian Democrat Helmut Kohl would also support. Ten years as President of the Commission followed, during which Delors significantly changed Europe.

As unusual as his path and his work were, it came as a surprise to many that after his time in Brussels, he did not take the step that many would have seen as the crowning achievement of his career: to run for the office of President of France. Despite having good chances, he turned down the offer to enter the race as a socialist candidate. Instead, he preferred to champion educational issues. In 1996, he founded the think tank Notre Europe – Institut Jacques Delors, which was later followed by sister institutions in Berlin and Brussels. In 2015, the European Council made him an honorary citizen of Europe, an honour that had previously only been awarded to Jean Monnet and Helmut Kohl. Until his death this Wednesday (27 December 2023), he followed current political events and the work of his institutes with great interest. He remained an alert source of ideas until the ripe old age of 98.

What made Delors so successful as President of the Commission, an office that even more than today was intended to support rather than lead the representatives of national governments?

Surely, it was his courage, discipline and practicality that set him apart, as well as the strong team that supported him, in particular his head of cabinet Pascal Lamy, who later became EU Commissioner and head of the World Trade Organisation. In addition, he used the office skilfully in three respects to deepen Europe, which was particularly evident in his first major success: the single market project.

First, Delors was conceptually visionary. When looking for a project for his presidency, he chose the single market. People, goods, capital and services should be able to move freely in Europe. This was already laid out in the Treaty of Rome; however, these freedoms required a harmonisation of national rules, and this could not happen without extending majority voting and strengthening the European Parliament. Delors consistently pushed through the corresponding treaty amendments.

The losers of the increased competitive pressure also had to be compensated and given new prospects. Delors's answer was regional policy. And a comprehensive reform of the EU budget, which restored the EU's financial capacity to act. The reforms to complete the single market were the basis for the next step: the introduction of the euro.

Second, Delors was a precise planner. Every vision – no matter how big, no matter how inspiring – needs a roadmap and, above all, a target date. Delors was enormously talented in the fine print of political business. The completion of the single market was formulated as a clear goal: the path consisted of 300 individual measures, and December 1992 was defined early on as the end date of the step-by-step process. This made it possible to fine-tune as needed.

The EU would benefit from Delors’s foresight today

Third, Jacques Delors was a great integrator across party and national borders. Delors made the decision to make the completion of the single market the centrepiece of his first Commission presidency after visiting the capitals of the Member States and exchanging views with the national governments. In doing so, he was able to rely not only on the important Franco-German tandem and the close cooperation between François Mitterrand and Helmut Kohl, but also on the goodwill of the traditionally rather Eurosceptic British government. As a former member, he also made sure that he had the European Parliament on his side. It was also important to him that the single market was presented as a non-partisan project and could therefore be supported by trade unions and employers alike – both at the national level and increasingly at the European level with the help of the newly created social dialogue.

The EU of today, which essentially came into being during these ten years, is certainly not perfect. It currently faces major challenges: enlargement, new security conflicts, international competitive pressure and the climate crisis. All these major issues need new answers, and a new magical transformation like the one under Jacques Delors seems vital. Delors’s foresight, his skill and his power of integration would do the EU good today – especially now that the European elections are coming up in June and we need a debate on the future of the Union.

When I met Delors briefly in his flat in January and introduced myself as the new Co-Director of the Berlin Jacques Delors Centre, he met me with great interest and said goodbye in German: "Auf Wiedersehen". Unfortunately, we will not have another chance to meet. Yet Delors’s vision and his life as a great European remain a role model and point of reference for all those who are willing to lead the EU into the future.

*Editor’s note: The term Eurosclerosis describes the economic stagnation and the turn away from common European policymaking that took place in the European Economic Community in the 1970s and 1980s.

See our online condolence book remembering Jacques Delors and his contribution to a united Europe. 

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