Remembering Jacques Delors

4 January 2024

Professor George Ross is ad personam Jean Monet Chair at the University of Montreal, Moris Hillquit Professor Emeritus of Labor and Social Thought at Brandeis University, and a past chair of the European Union Studies Association. He also served as acting director of CES (1998–1999), director of the EU Center at Harvard (1998–2000), and chair of the Council for European Studies (1990–1997). His books include Jacques Delors and European Integration (1995) and Euros and Europeans: EMU and The European Social Model (with A. Martin, 2004) and The Brave New World of European Labor (with A. Martin, 1999). 

With the passing of Jacques Delors, European integration has lost one of its most important historical figures, an extraordinarily gifted man who, as president of the European Commission from 1985 to 1995, promoted massive and needed changes in European policies and institutions.  Were there a Pantheon of European integration, Delors would sit in a place of utmost honor, right alongside Jean Monnet.


Early History


My own first – and distant – contact with Delors came in the north of France in winter 1963. I was researching an article on a massive, long, and seemingly intractable coal miners’ strike in which the miners had to contend with the decline of their industry and the harsh disapproval by President de Gaulle. Delors, then working in the French Planning Commission, was seconded to help settle the strike. In approaching this contentious situation, he did in-depth research into the positions of both sides, looking beyond their ideological and political posturing in a quest for a path toward compromise. He carefully documented the fact that the miners had been underpaid for some time and proposed a new “incomes policy” to boost their pay, thus helping the parties find a way out of the impasse.

At the time, Delors was an esteemed figure in French Catholic trade unionism with a unique ability to resolve seemingly insuperable problems. His uniqueness became clear once again when, as a man of the center-left, he became social policy adviser to de Gaulle’s Prime Minister Chaban-Delmas, who at heart was a centrist “Radical” in the French political sense, despite their political differences. Because of the events of 1968, Chaban needed the help of someone removed from the political infighting of the moment; Delors fit the bill. Later, in the post-de Gaulle 1970s when François Mitterrand was cementing the complicated left coalition that would carry him to the presidency in 1981, Delors, despite constant attacks on him stemming from his work with Chaban and alleged “right-wing leanings,” eventually joined Mitterrand’s Socialist Party. He would remain his own man, however, a fervent reformer deeply invested in the labor movement who independently sought answers to economic problems that others could not – or would not – resolve.

After his election to the first directly-elected European Parliament in 1979, Europe became his chief cause. Owing to his mastery of economic policy debates, he became the chair of the EP Economics Commission. In 1981 Mitterrand appointed him Minister of Economics and Finance. The ministry was central to Mitterrand’s presidency but quickly became a poisoned chalice for Delors. France’s economic problems were already very serious and rapidly grew more threatening still, in part because the Mitterrand parliamentary majority included many left-wingers who insisted that Mitterrand’s radical campaign manifesto be carried out in full.  Delors’s first ministerial years were thus marked by struggles with these problems. He and his team were under constant strain until the economic policy “U-turn” of 1983, when many harder left positions were abandoned, not least because of Delors’s stubborn insistence on confronting France’s difficult economic realities. His ability to generate new ideas again stood out, as did the solid support he had from his besieged ministerial team, whose members he insisted should work as hard as he did himself.      

These early days were not happy ones for the Mitterrand presidency When the time came to change Prime Ministers, Delors, a front-runner, was passed over, again because of his unorthodox position as a Catholic center-leftist who stubbornly refused to play the harder left’s game. He argued constantly with those to his left about the choices they faced.

He was admired elsewhere, however, particularly in Germany, and partly because of this, Delors, with French and German support, was named in 1985 to the Presidency of the European Commission. He then assembled a crack staff, including many from his French Ministry team, mobilized his deep knowledge of the EC’s economic situation, and worked with his international contacts to develop the Single Market (“1992”) program. This led the EC to deepen its internal market and broaden its mandate to confront globalization. There followed the 1986 Single Europe Act that adjusted EC Treaties to the Single Market, and the 1991 Maastricht Treaty that created the European Union Treaty,  Economic and Monetary Union and the Euro, new EU foreign and defense policy commitments, and transnational legal arrangements (Justice and Home Affairs). These were by far the most significant reforms in European integration since the founding Rome Treaty of 1958. Implementing these innovations within a confederation of national member states who often disagreed consumed much of what remained of Delors’s Commission presidency, which ended in 1995.


Meeting A Great Man


Along with many academics in North America and elsewhere, these years and achievements stirred my interest in European integration. Coincidentally, in the mid-1980s the Harvard Center for European Studies, which had acquired a lovely new building, wanted to have a ceremony-celebration to mark the occasion. The big question was deciding on a keynote speaker. I suggested inviting Delors, and my colleagues eventually agreed. It then fell to me to host Delors’s Cambridge visit, a duty which began with picking him up at the airport in the university limousine.

My memory of this occasion begins with sitting in the car with Jacques and his wife Marie, who were very quiet. After a while Delors started to talk, however, letting on that he had been thinking about what EC Europe should become when, after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the post-Cold War changes in Central and Eastern Europe – which had not yet happened- Germany would reunify. In particular he was reflecting on what the Commission’s positions should be during and after the end of the Cold War. Delors had many sources for advice about such critical matters, from Kohl, Mitterrand, other national leaders to his very able staff, plus the best of the Commission’s thoughtful professionals, not to speak of his innumerable contacts across Europe. From the way he talked, however, it was clear that he needed to think things through in his own mind about the positions that he would present to others and the arguments he would need to persuade them.

It was evident that Delors was no classic “Eurocrat,” despite what the international media often said. Instead, he was an independent and gifted individual trying to anticipate Europe’s uncertain future. In the time he spent in Cambridge he also had discussions with some of Harvard’s leading economists about how Europe might catch up with globalization, the EC’s other most important task, and demonstrated the same qualities and approaches. In his talk to dedicate our new center he broached these matters, and, despite their complexity, his speech was a big hit with a packed audience of students and faculty. For me, and I suspect many others, this was the moment when I discovered the new Europe. Meanwhile, Delors and I talked about playing basketball in our respective youths. I soon learned that he had been infinitely better at it than I. 

Delors had brought one of his cabinet members with him to Cambridge, a gifted British economist who was, among other things, helping to prepare the EMU. Talking with him gave me an idea. I was aware that Delors’s cabinet was a tireless and super-talented group that worked day-and-night to keep their boss informed and to help unite the Commission behind his goals. How it worked was not very well known either publicly or academically, so why shouldn’t someone make this a subject of research? I contacted a Parisian friend close to Delors, a participant in a regular seminar that gathered around him and his staff to read and discuss the high intellectual ideas of the moment – something that I found utterly remarkable – and suggested to him that “someone should study the cabinet.” He quickly responded that my idea was good, that I might be the right “someone,” and that I should go immediately to Brussels to meet with Pascal Lamy, Delors’s head of cabinet in Brussels, who was both revered for his skills and feared for his hard-nosed but successful leadership.

My proposed “participant observer” strategy appealed to him, and I won his approval. Lamy then led me into Delors’s office to talk to “the president” about my plan.  What followed was similar to the Harvard limousine experience. It was late in the day and Delors was sitting all alone thinking about EC matters. After an exchange of greetings, he began explaining the issues as he understood them, occasionally asking me what I thought. As in the Harvard car, Delors was debating with himself about how to shape the EC’s future.

In my months of field work there would be more such moments. Delors was both researcher and pedagogue, constantly testing his thinking on the people around him. Later, in 1995, after I had published a book on my Brussels research, I had another touching moment with him. Over lunch in Paris, he explained to me why he had declined to run in the coming French Presidential election – which many predicted he would win. When I asked him why he had chosen not to run, he responded, “Because Marie (Mme Delors) did not want me to.” This rang true and it revealed, not for the first time, that Jacques Delors was capable of resisting what might have been the crowning moment of his career for deep family reasons. Here, as with the EC/EU, he knew what was most important, and this time it was his family.


Delors’s Jobs 


When assessing Delors’s extraordinary Presidency of the European Commission, we need to recall how difficult and complex the job is. By treaty, the Commission oversees a range of policy areas but, more importantly, it is the source of the EC/EU’s proposals for change, which then have to be approved by the member states acting intergovernmentally. The Commission has to decide what and why to propose, however, and to anticipate what the implications might be. These are huge tasks, which involve formulating the best available ideas and persuading the member states to pass them. The Delors decade began at a moment when the EC faced very large problems – in particular about how to respond to globalization at a moment when “market fundamentalists” were rapidly changing the environments in and around its member states. In the same period the post-war geopolitical contexts around the EC were being redefined because of the decline of the USSR and the end of many of Europe’s Cold War divisions. 

The Delors Commission presidency confronted these challenges extraordinarily well. His ability to produce good ideas at critical points transferred well to Brussels. Having good ideas had always been one of his great gifts. Perhaps the main arena of struggle for Delors was getting his ideas and proposals accepted by the member states. As the representative of a non-state actor, he faced a plethora of difficulties. The EC/EU’s member states differed greatly in their histories, political cultures and traditions, nationalist proclivities, size, power, approaches to economic issues, relative wealth, openness or closure to outsiders—in short, their national preferences.  These differences had to be reconciled and harmonized if significant decisions were to become possible. The original architects of integration were well aware of the magnitude of the stakes, because their personal histories informed them that if they didn’t make the right institutional decisions, they might derail the unprecedented integration process.

The design of the European Commission itself thus reflected their concerns about the need to harmonize the commission’s own internal positions before proposals were passed on to member-state leaders for final adjudication. The Commission President began this harmonization process by presenting an annual work program which his cabinet would then promote energetically inside the Commission, with the President taking on much of the diplomatic work with the member states. The Commission membership was bound to reflect national differences because each member state had at least one Commissioner with an area-oriented policy remit. In presenting these varied ideas to the full Commission, presidential leadership was of fundamental importance.

These processes were also meant to generate initial consensus among the various national commissioners. What they did was therefore closely watched by national diplomats stationed in Brussels. For the Commission President, having a good proposal that anticipated what national leaderships might support was essential, because the wider and deeper the Commission’s consensus, the more likely its proposals would be taken seriously in the Council of Ministers. This “harmonizing” work, which involved refining initial proposals and building working policy coalitions internally was thus critically important to the success of policy proposals, not only because it helped create unity inside the Commission itself, but also because it encouraged and enhanced unity among the member states themselves. The possibilities that member state differences might block Commission proposals or insist on crippling amendments constantly present. The Commission president and his staff, central to all this, and once a proposal passed, Delors himself excelled at working with member state leaders to harmonize their disparate positions around it.

Although the EC/EU makes decisions of vast importance, it is not a “state.”  Like a state, however, it lives on shaky political ground and confronts significant intergovernmental differences that need to be carefully anticipated.  Among the large jobs the Commission has, one of the largest is to promote harmony among states that do not always agree. Delors, who had proved his leadership gifts in the hothouse of later 20th century French politics, would use them to full advantage in his Brussels years. Nothing was easy for the EC/EU in this period, and many of the reforms that were made would later need to be amended. Delors was nevertheless able to help revivify European integration on a new basis that has by and large proved successful.  Without his leadership the task would have been immeasurably more difficult. The man who contributed so much to the success of the European Union has now left us, but neither he nor his work will soon be forgotten.  

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