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Jacques Delors: European Giant

Obituary / OP-ED
John Palmer

Date: 03/01/2024

The death of Jacques Delors marks the passing of a European political giant. His lengthy period as President of the European Commission (1985 – 1995) saw the reversal of a potentially dangerous period of economic and political stagnation in what was then the European Economic Community. It also laid the basis for the creation, firstly of the Single European Market and then the Single European Currency. At the same time Delors led the drive for a stage by stage enlargement - from being a ten-member state European Economic Community, when he was first appointed - to the 27 nation European Union of today.

Jacques Delors’ commitment to the European project can only be compared to that of Jean Monnet, the French visionary who had campaigned for European unity - even before the Second World War - and with renewed energy and relentless focus after 1945. It was perhaps no coincidence that the young Delors decided in 1962 – against the advice of his father – to join the Commissariat Au Plan – a highly influential economic and social development institute established by Monnet in 1945.

The young Delors was at that time a man of the radical left. He was profoundly committed to the social and political goals of the CFDT trade union federation, which, although secular, had attracted many members from the Christian trade union movement. During the turbulent 1960s – leading up to the mass strike wave and factory occupation by workers in 1968 protesting at the policies of the government of President de Gaulle - the CFDT was more militant than the Communist led CGT union. Delors joined the radical leftist Parti Socialiste Unifié although he subsequently became a member of the mainstream French Socialist Party under the leadership of François Mitterrand.

Around this time, Delors abandoned the goal of seeking to replace capitalism and the market economy. His biographer, Charles Grant, records him saying at the time “There are several different types of capitalism … maybe we can work with some of them.” His subsequent career as finance minister in governments led by Francois Mitterrand showed he was prepared to implement tough economic strategies while retaining his deep attachment to radical social reform and the empowerment of working people.

At this stage Delors was already committed to the goal of a United Europe. So when he was appointed President of the European Commission to his first of three terms in 1985 he actively prepared a strategy for accelerating the process of European integration. He first consulted closely with veteran supporters of deeper European integration. They included Dutchman Max Kohnstamm, a close collaborator of Jean Monnet and in later years a founding Director of the European Policy Centre. Another was former Italian communist Altiero Spinelli – a member of the European Parliament - who had already won the Parliament’s support for a draft European Union treaty.

Delors’ arrival in Brussels followed a series of Commission Presidents with limited ambitions for the future of the European Economic Community. Those were years of Euro-stagnation when some questioned whether the EEC would survive national governments’ reluctance to pool decision making sovereignty at the European level even for critically important common objectives. In earlier years Charles de Gaulle’s government had even imposed a temporary “empty chair” boycott of EU Council meetings.

Delors picked an exceptionally talented Presidential team which included his Chef-de-Cabinet, Pascal Lamy, a former colleague in the French finance ministry who, in later years, led the World Trade Organisation. For Commission officials more widely, Delors was perhaps a more intriguing even challenging figure. Seen as somewhat distant, he did not regularly wine and dine colleagues. But the sharpness of his intellect came to be universally recognised even by his critics.

Hywel Ceri Jones, a former chairman and chief executive of the EPC, was for many years the Commission Director for Education, Training and Youth Policies. He worked very closely with Delors to prepare the ambitious Erasmus programme in 1987 giving young people the opportunity to study in other EU member states.  Ceri Jones testifies that “Jacques Delors was deeply committed to the importance of social policy as a vital bridge to economic policy. He was a dynamic and forceful presence at summit meetings of the European Social Dialogue, as I witnessed on several occasions. He also promoted the design and development of EU structural policies which he saw as a necessary counterweight to the successful development of the internal market.

Delors’ political values were clear throughout his Presidency tenure. On the one hand he was a ‘realist’ on economic and monetary policy. This won him the trust even of hard line German monetary zealots at the time of the creation of the Euro. Not all Germans believe in God, but all Germans believe in the Bundesbank,” he once declared. But he balanced this with strong support for those insisting on the priorities of combatting social inequality and enhancing workers’ rights.

Friction over social and political values was indeed the background against which increasingly difficult relations developed between Delors and the then British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher. She had no great objection to the creation of the EU Single Market which was indeed strongly supported by the British Conservative member of the Commission at the time, Lord Arthur Cockfield. When, to her horror, she realised that Delors had also won Cockfield’s support for the consequential necessity for an EU Single Currency, Thatcher angrily declared: “Arthur has gone native!”.

Contrary to what some in London thought, Delors was never an advocate of a fully fledged ‘federal’ constitution for the EU. He once corrected me when we were discussing the future of the European Union. “I am not a federalist. But I want a federalising Europe.” he said. For him it was all about a continuing journey - not a definition of the exact final destination.

Relations with Thatcher only got worse after he addressed the annual congress of the British Trade Unions - appealing for their support for an emerging programme of EU social and employment reforms. The enthusiastic response of the trade union delegates was to rise in applause and sing repeated verses of the French children’s song: Frere Jacques. The British prime minister’s response to Delors’ eventual plan for a new EU constitution was a vehement “NO, NO, NO.” The populist British newspaper – The Sun – responded with an article headlined “Up Yours Delors!”.

After Jacques Delors retired from the Commission Presidency, he came under pressure to stand for the 1995 French Presidential election but he declined and retired from French politics. The Jacques Delors Institute, established shortly after his retirement, has become an important centre for sustaining his vision for the future of the European Union. Of course Europe and the world have evolved.  The dark clouds over east/west relations and the possibility of major changes in US foreign and security priorities after the next US Presidential election would have been a daunting challenge even for Jacques Delors. However, they would surely have led him to redouble his advocacy of a democratic ‘federalising’ European Union.

John Palmer is a founding Director of the European Policy Centre and was previously the European Editor in Brussels for The Guardian newspaper, London.

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