Jacques Delors (1925-2023) And Europe: a Thinking, a Method, a Style

Jacques Delors (1925-2023) And Europe: a Thinking, a Method, a Style


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Jacques Delors (1925-2023) And Europe: a Thinking, a Method, a Style

The French version of this article is available on the Grand Continent website.

Horace, with his “laudator temporis acti”, was cautious of glorifying times past in order to justify a gloomy condemnation of the present 1 . Such is the risk we take in evoking the Delors era (1985-1994), which is portrayed as a golden age of European construction.

Favorable circumstances

To guard against this risk, we must first recognize that this era benefitted from favorable circumstances — a kind of aligning of national stars over Brussels. France was presided over by a Mitterrand whose commitment to Europe was unwavering; Helmut Kohl, a Rhinelander of the immediate post-war period, governed in Bonn; the Felipe Gonzalez of the “movida” was at the Moncloa. We can also include Margaret Thatcher, who long supported Jacques Delors before becoming an adversary.

The latter’s appointment as head of the European Commission was itself due to circumstances. François Mitterrand, buoyed by his success at the Fontainebleau European Council in June 1984, had secured the appointment of a French to preside over the future Community executive, but was considering Claude Cheysson, who came up against a British veto. Helmut Kohl, who had the opportunity to get to know Delors while he was serving — rather roughly — as a minister in Paris, helped the French president by suggesting Delors. It is said that Emmanuel Macron returned the favor to Angela Merkel in 2019 when Manfred Weber was passed over in favor of Ursula von der Leyen.

The Delors period had a number of guardian angels.

Pascal Lamy

It was, therefore, an impromptu nomination. But any major headhunter tasked with this appointment would undoubtedly have recommended the same choice. Jacque Delors’ personal itinerary lent itself to this. His professional experience at the Banque de France, his expertise in economics — which he taught —, his time at the French  Planning Commission and as part of Prime Minister Jacques Chaban-Delmas’ cabinet, his experience as a European MP elected in 1979 and, finally, as French Economics and Finance minister from 1981, had ideally prepared him for the highly technical and political position of President of the Commission.

Other factors contributing to a favorable climate for the European project in the mid-1980s were the negotiations for the enlargement of the Community to include Spain and Portugal, both enthusiastic candidate countries. The quality of the European Commissioners sent to Brussels by the chancelleries also helped to create a favorable context, attracting solid personalities, including some of the most senior, such as Lorenzo Natali, and some of the youngest, such as the Irishman Peter Sutherland. Jacques Delors also benefited from the rapport he was able to establish with the then eminent Secretary General of the Commission, Emile Noël. We should also mention the contribution of prominent Belgian figures among his friends, such as Etienne Davignon, Pierre Defraigne, Jean Durieux, Philippe Maystadt, Jean-Louis Lacroix and Jean Godeaux. Together, they formed the social wing of Belgian Christian Democracy. And, of course, there was the invaluable advice of Max Kohnstamm, a close advisor and inspiration to Jean Monnet in the 1950s.

Delor’s thinking on Europe

Compared to the malevolent forces at work in and around Europe today, the Delors period had a number of guardian angels. But beyond these circumstances, the relaunch of the European venture for which Jacques Delors has been widely credited in the wake of his death owes a great deal to the man himself, as well as to his vision of European integration. This vision formed the backbone of his ten-year tenure at the Commission. Jacques Delors was one of those individuals who believed that ideas should guide the world. His vision of a united Europe stemmed from three sources: historical, political, and institutional. He combined these to weave the fabric of his action in both Brussels and Strasbourg.

Jacques Delors summarized his historical thinking — most notably in his Mémoires — with his famous maxim: “survival or decline”. This approach, which reflects a certain pessimism, is due first and foremost to the fact that he belonged to the generation that experienced the Second World War. His father had been gravely wounded during the First World War. These two conflicts always inspired his European thinking, as he was concerned about whether the values of the continent which he held dear, and which Emmanuel Mounier’s personalism formalized in his view, would still find their place in the future. Simply put, for him, either Europe could be made, and its values —our civilization, our way of living together — would survive, or it would fail and be condemned by History.

For Delors, either Europe could be made, and its values — our civilization, our way of living together — would survive, or it would fail and be condemned by History.

Pascal Lamy

Delors therefore did not have an Atlanticist view of Europe. His cautious attitude towards the United States was less in keeping with a French tradition of maintaining a certain distance from Washington, than with a profound concern about how seriously the United States took the European project and its uniqueness. After each of his meetings with an American president, he hoped to have impressed upon them the idea that Europe did indeed exist, and that its interests did not necessarily coincide with those pursued by his counterpart. His stance was in line with what might today be described as a geopolitical conception of Europe. It is based on the affirmation of a European identity, the affirmation and very survival of which require the union of Europeans.

His vision of the European project can also be appreciated in its political dimension. Jacques Delors placed “his” Europe at the confluence of European social democracy and christian democracy, which has long structured post-war politics in Western Europe. What might seem like a classic posture in the European political arena was, in fact, singular for a politician from France, where, unlike Germany, Italy or Belgium, there were only a handful of social democrats or even christian democrats.

Delors did not have an Atlanticist view of Europe.

Pascal Lamy

His economic, social, and political views were in line with the most central parts of these two mainstream movements. Like them, he always considered that there could be no social policy without economic growth, but that socially unbalanced growth was unsustainable. The proper balance requires a certain degree of redistribution, of planning and of regulation, as well as social dialogue between responsible social partners. He recognized the efficiency of markets, but also the need to correct them. It was in this spirit that he relaunched the Schumpeterian undertaking of liberalization that is the internal market, convinced that greater competition at the European level would make it possible to achieve productivity gains and thereby generate more growth and thus greater well-being, but at the same time accompanying this approach with a policy of social dialogue and redistribution between the richest and poorest regions via the Union’s budget. He convened European business leaders and trade unions at Val-Duchesse, in Brussels, to discuss “European collective agreements”, and secured a substantial increase in Germany’s contribution to the “structural funds” to cushion the effects of opening up to competition, helping in particular the Southern countries to equip themselves with the necessary infrastructure and skills. In other words, Jacques Delors mixed competitiveness from the right and social and territorial cohesion from the left.

A bit later, in the early 1990s, he added an environmental dimension to these essential conditions for sustainable growth. Although his roots in France’s Correze traditional rural department initially made him skeptical of the environmental movement, the Chernobyl disaster in 1986 and his participation at the Rio Earth Summit in 1992 convinced him — well before many political leaders of his time — of the need to align growth with measures to protect the environment, climate and biodiversity, in the same way as those to protect social and territorial cohesion.

His vision of a united Europe was also institutional. It is encapsulated in his term of “federation of nation-states”. For constitutionalists, this is more of an oxymoron, which is more a statement of a problem specific to Europe than a solution. The concept is close, in fact, to that of Habermas, who prefers the “Staatenbund” to the “Bundesstaat”. For Jacques Delors, the juxtaposition of these two opposing notions — federation and nation-state — was, on the contrary, the solution to the project of a united Europe. It was the core of his position, which was equidistant from Spinelli-style federalism and De Gaulle-style nationalism. He believed that the union of Europeans required the support of both the people and the States. As such, he paid as much attention to heads of state and government as he did to the European Parliament. He was the first President of the Commission to really treat the Parliament as a serious and mature counterpart, and to reserve announcements of his strongest initiatives for it. Similarly, in his institutional practice, he always positioned himself as part of a triangle linking the Council, intended as a quasi-Senate of the member states, the Parliament, regarded as the people’s chamber, and the Commission, which he took care not to identify publicly as a European government, in order to avoid exposing himself to rebukes from the chancelleries.

Delors recognized the efficiency of markets, but also the need to correct them. It was in this spirit that he relaunched the Schumpeterian undertaking of liberalization that is the Internal Market.

Pascal Lamy

Although he refrained from theorizing or defining this view of institutions, he had to accept, on several occasions, seeing it undermined. This was particularly true during the negotiation of the Maastricht Treaty in 1991 when the traditionally sovereign approaches of the French and British diplomats — with the complicity of a few others — imposed that in addition to the Community method — under which the Commission enjoyed a monopoly of initiative as the body in charge of expressing the general European interest — the new powers be exercised according to a more intergovernmental method, which Jacques Delors considered less effective. His institutional thinking remained fundamentally attached to the Community method, which in his eyes was the best because it was the most efficient and transparent: the Commission proposes, the Council decides and can only amend the Commission’s proposal unanimously without the Commission’s agreement, the Parliament co-decides and reaches agreement with the Council in a trilogue involving  the Commission.

It is through these three dimensions — historical, political and institutional — that he planned European integration, seen as a compelling necessity for reasons that are ultimately ethical as much as political. But this thinking only makes sense when translated into political action. This is where the “Delors method” comes into its own.

The Delors method

At the risk of oversimplifying, this method resembles a carefully planned and sequenced itinerary where each step leads to the next, fine-tuning it as necessary — which implies constant attention to anything in the environment that might disrupt or interfere with the smooth running of this itinerary. In short, it mapped out a path to follow and equipped it with radars which warned of any obstacles or unforeseen events which, if ignored, could lead to wrong turns or veering off course. In this respect, the Delors method was quite scientific.

The Delors method was quite scientific.

Pascal Lamy

This method was used to create the internal market. The itinerary’s objective, set back in 1985, was to do away with borders by 1992 — an idea that was more popular at the time than it would be today. This objective implied harmonizing or mutually recognizing standards and regulations, whose differences between countries had until then justified border controls. To achieve this, a whole range of Community competences had to be transferred to the domain of majority voting. As already mentioned, this openness required the provision of “structural funds”, which would lead to a substantial increase in the Community budget’s resources. The Single European Act of 1986 — by far the best of the European treaties that serve as our Constitution — laid the foundations for all this.

Following this itinerary, the internal market also called for an economic and monetary union, so that the game of national devaluations would no longer distort competition. One market, one currency. Jacques Delors would later achieve this at Maastricht. When he left the Commission, he left behind the “White Paper”, which mapped out a new course for the times to come, including the need — already! — to equip the European Union with digital infrastructure, what he called “information highways”. And, from the outset, he insisted on integrating environmental issues into Community authority, even though his visionary 1992 “carbon tax” -which he had tasked his then environment adviser Genevieve Pons to push hard through the Commission services- failed the European Council’s test, which had to reach unanimous agreement on direct taxation, as is unfortunately still the case today.

The internal market also called for an economic and monetary union, so that the game of national devaluations would no longer distort competition. Jacques Delors would later achieve this at Maastricht.

Pascal Lamy

The Delors style

Combining permanently thinking and acting was Delors secret. But in order to fully understand his leadership, we need to add a third element, the “Delors style”. This was illustrated by his remarkable ability to get decision-makers and public opinion to share his vision and convictions.

With the decision-makers, he combined the culture of listening and reaching compromise inherited from his trade union past with a kind of countryside cunning that consisted of revealing only at the last, most crucial moment of the bargaining process, the “price” his negotiating partners would have to accept for an agreement. It was always a little higher than their expectations, but not so much as to give the impression of trying to trick them by more than marginally destabilizing the structure of concessions at the risk of losing their confidence. This is why the Presidency of the European Council often turned to him to find a way out of a deadlocked discussion, a scenario that had to have been prepared, among others, and which required exhausting preparation work.

In terms of opinions, Jacques Delors was particularly adept at framing his projects within a narrative. Through teaching economics to his fellow trade unionists and his partners at the French Planning Commission, he had learned to make abstract concepts accessible and complicated mechanisms simple. That’s why, it is still said, “in Delors’ time, people understood Europe”. Here again, we find a very distinctive blend of hard work, at once highly intellectual and almost craftsmanlike, to obtain the right “product”, as well as improvisation in front of the media, which delighted fans of surprising and biting phrases which, even among his close collaborators, were never sure whether they were malicious or a slip of the tongue.

Through teaching economics to his fellow trade unionists and his partners at the French Planning Commission, he had learned to make abstract concepts accessible and complicated mechanisms simple.

To recall the thinking, method, and style he applied to advancing European integration is also to take stock, almost thirty years on. Jacques Delors advanced European unity in many areas, with the exception of defense and security. He always prudently believed that in these areas, the journey would be much longer than those taken for the market and the currency. The latter obey more rational thinking, whereas the idea of a “European army” touches on the emotional and would require Europeans to share the same dreams as well as the same nightmares. It takes a lot of shared emotion to risk the lives of soldiers.

Vulnerabilities and weaknesses

The benefits for Europe of the Delors’ years need no recalling here. Those are well known. More useful is to attempt to identify in the edifice built — Inside The House That Jacques Built, according to the title of the essay by British researcher Charles Grant (1994) — certain vulnerabilities.

Jacques Delors advanced European unity in many areas, with the exception of defense and security.

As we have said, the main — political — weakness of the Delors house is the political equilibrium between christian democrats and social democrats. His model is historically dependent on this balance. It assumes that these two forces remain dominant and of comparable importance. This was long the case in the European Parliament. As soon as this balance was upset, so too was the balance between the economic, social and environmental spheres. The efficiency of markets increased, but without further regulation, and with less pressure to mitigate their social consequences. It was a “neoliberal” Europe for many, which was not Delors’ vision. This is still the challenge today: a new push to the right in Parliament at next June’s elections risks destabilizing the center-right-center-left-centrist coalition on which the von der Leyen Commission has relied.

The house also contains a weakness: that of a Europe which is not yet sufficiently developed to harness the forces of globalization currently at play. Faced with a shock, as we saw during the 2008 financial crisis, the Union was not sufficiently resilient. Jacques Delors had identified this weakness right from the start of the Economic and Monetary Union, at the time of the Maastricht Treaty. He pointed out to European leaders that what they had retained from his proposals was a union that was ultimately very monetary and not sufficiently economic. We made Europe mature in certain areas, but not in others.

Jacques Delors also shared, as most did at the time, a post-Westphalian vision, like that of Jean Monnet. It was, alas, premature, as Marcel Gauchet put it much later: “The Union became absorbed in an internal process, whereas the demand of the people, in this context of globalization, was quite logically a demand for a response to pressure from outside.”

Jacques Delors also shared, as most did at the time, a post-Westphalian vision, like that of Jean Monnet. It was, alas, premature.

More fundamentally, at that time we lacked perspective in making the bet, along with the founding fathers, that economic integration would automatically lead to political integration. This medieval alchemy should have turned economic lead into political gold. It was believed that there was a continuum between the European consumer, worker or producer, and the political citizen, when in fact the species barrier cannot be crossed with impunity. Historian Elie Barnavi analyzed this in his essay L’Europe frigide (2008). Being a citizen implies a feeling of belonging to a community, of being part of a collective effort, whereas workers and consumers reason in terms of supply and demand in a sphere that remains economic and rational. The “democratic deficit” often denounced at European level is not a matter of the kratos, i.e. the institutional structures of the Union, but of the demos. It is a lack of belonging. It exists at other levels, but not, or only slightly, at European level. Europe is more often clear to non-Europeans than it is to Europeans.

Jacques Delors had, however, somewhat sensed the cultural deficit — in the German sense of the word “Kultur” — intrinsic to the European project when he created the “carrefours de la culture”, which brought together intellectuals, social scientists and artists, an undertaking which his successors lost interest in.

A more necessary and more difficult Europe

To conclude, let us put forward this obvious fact, which is clear from the many tributes paid over the last days: European integration today seems both more necessary and more difficult than in the Delors period. It is more necessary if we aspire to be stronger in the face of the fragmentation and the brutalization of the world, which the return of war to Europe exemplifies. It is more difficult, because the step that must be taken, that of “strategic autonomy”, implies moving from the union of well-understood economic interests to that of politics, the union of passions, values, dreams and nightmares already mentioned. This passion animated Jacques Delors, a man “who turned hope into history”, as I read in a message I just received, a phrase I believe he would have loved. Let us hope, in this circumstance, that the hope he embodied for so many of us will prevail over nostalgia.


  1. This piece is a thorough update of a text published by the author in 2019: «L’Europe selon Jacques Delors».
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Pascal Lamy, Jacques Delors (1925-2023) And Europe: a Thinking, a Method, a Style, Jan 2024,

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