BRUSSELS — Jacques Delors, son of a Parisian bank messenger who became a visionary and builder of a more unified Europe during his memorable decade as director-general of the European Union, has died in Paris, said Wednesday to the Associated Press the Delors Institute think tank. He was 98 years old.
“The whole of Europe mourns the death of one of its greatest architects,” the institute said in a statement. “The best results of European integration cannot be dissociated from the vision, courage, conviction, perseverance and hard work which characterized the work of Jacques Delors during his 10 years at the head of the European Commission.”
As a tribute, the office of French President Emmanuel Macron said: “This grandson of farmers and son of a bank employee, whose rise was entirely due to his talent, never allowed the heights to corrupt his human righteousness.”
Delors “became the builder of the EU as we know it today,” German Chancellor Olaf Scholz wrote on X, formerly Twitter. “It is our responsibility to continue his work today for the good of Europe.”
To many, the owlish but determined socialist and Catholic was simply “Mr. Europe.” The EU, which today stretches from Finland to Portugal and is home to more than 500 million people, has been dubbed “the house that James built” by a popular biography.
Delors led the EU from 1985 to 1995
During his tenure from 1985 to 1995 as head of the European bureaucracy in Brussels, member countries agreed to eliminate barriers that prevented the free movement of capital, goods, services and people.
Delors also played a key role in developing the plan for economic and monetary union, which led to the creation of the European Central Bank and the euro.
The latter, considered by many to be Delors’ masterpiece, is now the official tender for 20 of the 27 EU countries.
But in the years before his death, some of Delors’ works came under threat. A narrowly averted crisis over Greece has rocked the euro zone, while EU borders have come under pressure from hundreds of thousands of refugees and other migrants, exposing fault lines across the within the block. In 2016, the United Kingdom voted to leave the EU, rejecting the “ever closer union” that the former president of the European Commission worked to forge.
The EU’s continued eastward expansion, into territories formerly controlled by Moscow, has been halted by fierce opposition from the Kremlin. And the economies of many of the bloc’s member countries appeared to be stagnating, with persistently low growth rates and millions unable to find work.
He saw “a future filled with dangers”
In remarks that may ring as true today as when he left office, Delors warned his fellow European citizens in 1995 that “we have a future full of dangers.” He insisted that their countries, which have spent centuries facing each other in devastating and bloody wars, must continue to fight for “agreements at the political, social and economic levels.”
For many, this brooding Frenchman with big ideas but painstaking attention to detail was the most influential figure in building a more united Europe since the founders of the postwar Common Market decided to bind their nations together to prevent a new war.
Wim Kok, former Dutch Prime Minister, admiringly described Delors as a man “who, for 10 years, determined the face of Europe like no other.”
“I am satisfied like a craftsman from whom someone ordered a table and chairs, who did everything he could to create a beautiful work and who today sees it before him,” Delors told a journalist in 1998, three years after leaving Brussels. He added: “I see myself as just one part of the chain.”
The EU – called the European Community when Delors took over – grew from 10 to 12 nations during his tenure, with the clear promise of much greater expansion occurring since.
After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, Delors rushed to prepare the organization for the admission of the former communist countries of Eastern Europe.
From a narrowly focused “trading bloc,” it has expanded into areas that were once the jealously guarded purview of individual governments, such as foreign policy, customs and border controls, justice and home affairs.
Britain considered Delors an excessive Eurocrat
But for many, especially in countries like Britain, Delors became the reviled personification of the excessive Eurocrat determined to interfere in virtually every aspect of people’s lives. A London tabloid called on its readers to demonstrate their hostility towards the “crazy Frenchman” by gathering together and shouting in unison: “Up Yours Delors”.
British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, although using more genteel language, insisted on her country’s sovereign right to set its own course in many areas.
Delors has pushed the grouping of countries well beyond its initial role as an economic club towards its dream of a united Europe. He wanted to give it the institutions and tools necessary to compete with the United States and Japan, and make it a force for peace, prosperity and security.
His vision of a federal Europe – he spoke of a “germ of a European government” – went too far for some.
“In the mid-1990s, there were signs of a significant backlash against European integration,” said N. Piers Ludlow, associate professor at the London School of Economics and Political Science. “A potential European superstate has always been considered science fiction, but this specter is becoming much more credible.”
Ludlow said Delors was “in a league of his own” as European Commission president, but ultimately overstepped the mark, alienating some EU leaders who are “fed up with this guy monopolizing the attention “. A German businessman once compared Delors to the autocratic King Louis XIV of France.
In 1992, the Maastricht Treaty which founded the EU clipped the wings of the Commission and its president, not granting them all the powers sought by Delors.
In his farewell speech to the European Parliament in January 1995, Delors said he was satisfied with what he was leaving to his successors.
“The foundations of the European house have been laid and they are solid,” he said. “Let’s make sure they don’t take any damage.”
Delors loved jazz, Hollywood films and basketball, but found American society too unforgiving.
“It’s like a western, with good guys and bad guys, where the weak have no place,” he says. The European model, more united and more social, “remains superior”, he declared.
A reluctant politician
A bit shy, he was a reluctant politician, seeking only minor electoral mandates during his career: a seat in the European Parliament and the town hall of a Paris suburb. After leaving Brussels, the French presidency seemed within reach, but he refused to run.
His daughter Martine Aubry also entered politics and is now mayor of Lille, in northern France.
“People say I’m an intellectual who went into politics,” Delors said. After Brussels, he opened a think tank in his native Paris. His statements on European policy issues have been carefully scrutinized.
Delors was a rare case in French public life: a self-made man from a working-class background who had not attended the prestigious grandes écoles. Instead, he took evening classes in economics.
From 1981 to 1984, he served as France’s finance minister under President François Mitterrand before Mitterrand and German Chancellor Helmut Kohl recruited him to lead the EU’s executive branch.
Biographer Charles Grant found him a ball of contradictions, writing:
“He is a socialist trade unionist who worked for a Gaullist Prime Minister who describes himself as a discreet Christian Democrat. He is a practicing Catholic who takes moral positions and claims not to be ambitious; yet he is a political tactician cunning man who enjoys power. and has held the Commission in an iron grip. He is a patriotic Frenchman with a vision of a unified Europe.”
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