The visionary legacy of Jacques Delors

POLITICO – Alberto Alemanno remembers Jacques Delors’ legacy for Europe.

Anyone who wants to be the former leader’s heir must strive to not just complete his unfinished project but relaunch it with the same personal commitment, rigor and creativity.

Jacques Delors’ vision and the European project were intrinsically intertwined to the point of overlapping with one another | Philippe Wojazer/AFP via Getty Images

If the European Union were a country, the passing of former Commission President Jacques Delors would have been mourned by millions across the Continent.

No other EU leader would have had a better chance at attaining a state funeral than the Frenchman who led the bloc between 1985 and 1995, indisputably shaping the lives of the last two generations of Europeans. Delors’ political accomplishments expanded their daily opportunities, protecting them from the impact of shrinking nation states in an increasingly globalized world.

Consciously or not, millions of Europeans are indebted to him. This is true of the 11 million Erasmus students who have so far participated in the program, and the million babies born out of that life-changing experience. Equally so for all the Europeans able to freely travel across the EU after the Schengen Agreement, as well as those able to settle within the bloc since gaining EU citizenship in 1992. Not to mention the hundreds of thousands of businesses that have thrived in the single market and the nearly 341 million who use the euro daily.

All these milestones of European integration can be credited to Delors’ legacy. However, in today’s incomplete and largely unintelligible EU, those commemorating the former Commission president remained limited to just a few political leaders and observers — remarkably enough, all exclusively from Western Europe.

From German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and French President Emmanuel Macron to Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, in their remembrance, these leaders didn’t just praise Delors as one of Europe’s main architects but also declared themselves his spiritual heirs. Yet, crucially, the commitment today’s political leaders have to the EU project pales in comparison to Delors’ legacy.

So, how exactly did he achieve so much during his time at the helm of the Commission?

First, he wasn’t a career politician. Delors was a self-taught trade unionist turned public servant, before eventually entering politics at the age 49 in hopes of “being useful.” As a leading trade unionist in his own country, an MEP in the first European Parliament directly elected by EU citizens in 1979, and a minister of economy and finance, Delors gained unique exposure to — and fluency in — the European project for a man of his time.

And through these distinct yet complementary experiences, he grasped the logic of European integration, mastered its method and became embedded in its transnational socialization process.

When appointed president of the Commission of the European Communities in 1985, Delors had Europe — not the nation state — in mind. It was Europe — not France — that, as a left-wing Christian who believed in the market, offered him a unique political arena to advance his own vision of society. And in that emerging transnational space, the two major European political families — the Social Democrats and the Christian Democrats — could, indeed, work together, experimentally mixing and balancing out market mechanisms with social interventions despite their distinct ideologies and policies.

Delors’ vision and the European project were intrinsically intertwined to the point of overlapping with one another.

As Commission president, Delors was also fully cognizant of the fact that the EU was, first and foremost, an eminently political project to be realized through economic means — hence his razor-sharp focus on the single market and the economic and monetary union. And to gather support for these (at the time) radical transformations, Delors and his team — often supported by a network of academics — incessantly generated ideas and proposals, some of which were able to potentially satisfy everyone without letting anybody down.

His unique talent was to pedagogically craft snappy narratives functional to the challenges facing EU leaders at the time, rather than pressure member countries into choosing a direction they didn’t want. For example, Delors’ 1985 white paper on completing the internal market embodies his mastery at creatively reconciling short-term needs with a long-term vision.

And in order to realize this vision, Delors took full advantage of the Community method — elevating it as Europe’s crown jewel. Under this method, it is for the Commission to propose new initiatives that the Parliament and Council can then adopt by majority vote, which entails the full recognition that member countries can and should be bound by decisions they oppose. By combining supranational aspects with negotiations between the states, Delors gained the political support needed to advance some of his most ambitious reforms.

Finally, Delors’ reformist agenda didn’t take place in a vacuum. After the long economic stagnation caused by the recession of the 1970’s, he arrived at the Commission at a very delicate moment for European integration. Yet, in just a few months, he managed to turn the then dominant narrative of “Eurosclerosis” into a more positive “relaunch.” As he wrote, “the mood has begun to change, and the commitment to be rediscovered gradually at first, but now with increasing tempo.”

Delors also benefited from a supportive Parliament and maintained good personal relations with leaders from the most influential capitals. These included fellow socialists like his countryman François Mitterrand, Spain’s Felipe González and Italy’s Bettino Craxi, as well as conservatives like Germany’s Helmut Kohl and Britain’s Margaret Thatcher.

After initially supporting his vision, Thatcher later demonized Delors as inexorably contributing to building a European super-state, thus sowing the seeds of the blossoming Brexit narrative some 30 years later. Yet, Delors was no federalist. Rather, he strived to reconcile supranationalism with the nation state through what he famously — and oxymoronically — labelled a “Federation of Nation States.”

Ultimately, how Delors would address some of the epochal challenges facing the EU today — whether it be tackling a rebellious member country like Hungary or handling migration and a new enlargement — remains unanswerable. But as EU leaders mourn his passing by acknowledging his “visionary” legacy, they have major lessons to learn from Delorism, starting with his endless search for long term-solutions to long-term problems, as opposed to today’s more reactive, short-termist approach.

Anyone who wants to be Delors’ heir must strive to not only complete his unfinished project but relaunch it with the same commitment, rigor and creative thinking as the greatest president Europe ever had.