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Jacques Delors: Remembering the Man who Forged the EU

On the 27th of December 2023 Jacques Delors, passed away. The passing of the former Minister of Finances of France under the socialist Mitterrand government from 1981 to 1984 and president of the European Commission from 1985 to 1995, was confirmed by his daughter. Delors left behind him a powerful legacy in the European Union having pushed forward a monetary agenda which led to the creation of the Euro.

Delors' rise to power in the French government started with a childhood immersed in the radical socialism of his father and mother. His father pushed him to join the Banque de France (Central Bank of France) as a trainee. His education at home and as a trainee forged Jacques Delors' approach within the French government. In Matignon in the late 60s and early 70s, Delors characterised his stance for modernisation by saying, "there is no economic without social, no social without economic, and no economic without modernisation".

In 1981, under the newly elected socialist president François Mitterrand and his prime minister, Pierre Mauroy, Jacques Delors became finance minister. At the time, the French economy was in a dire state: the Franc was weak against the dollar, there was high inflation and the oil shock of 1979 was at the centre of attention. The fight for the gradual devaluation of the Franc and budgetary cuts against the wishes of his fellow Leftist ministers at the beginning of Jacques Delors' mandate would characterise his three years alongside Mitterrand. Inherently socialist, Delors aimed to reduce the national deficit to rebalance the budget of Sécurité Sociale (French healthcare system) in parallel with blocking prices and salaries, which was widely considered controversial. In France, the economic austerity within a socialist government would come to be known as "le tournant de la rigueur" (loosely translated as the Neoliberal Turn). 

The economic difficulties of 1983 threatened the European Monetary System (EMS), created four years earlier in 1979. The parties on the left advocated for France to exit EMS, but Delors was firmly against this. At this time, his European aspirations began to form more concretely. Delors saw, in the EMS, a promising future for the French economy but also an anchor for a more stable European economy. Following several back and forths between Mitterrand and the Ten, Delors' diplomacy and firm stances proved successful in keeping the French Franc in the EMS and obtaining a devaluation against the Franc. Mitterrand offered him the role of Prime Minister, but Delors chose not to give up his duty as the man leading budgetary policy. 

In 1984, Mitterrand took the presidency of the European Economic Community. At the time, the difficulties of moving forward with the project of a European Union - regarding the Community's budget - were exacerbated by a stubborn Margaret Thatcher. The Common Agricultural Policy was severely mismanaged whilst negotiations and possible reforms were not progressing. Yet, Mitterrand and Delors worked alongside Helmut Kohl in Fontainebleau to soothe tensions, finding a middle ground with the Iron Lady. 

A new president was needed for the Commission at the end of 1985, and Jacques Delors was the obvious candidate. At the time, several pathways towards constructing a European Union included institutional, monetary, defence and internal markets. With his robust economic background, Delors took on the role of architect for the European internal market. For Delors, this step was necessary to build a successful monetary union, and he made these intentions quite clear. However, a monetary union was judged premature at the time, and thus, a pathway towards the single market was followed. 

Delors' socialist vision of Europe unnerved many of his European counterparts, including Margaret Thatcher, in 1988 when he expressed his vision of a "social Europe" through the development of regions and encouraging youth employment. He said this agenda was the only way for Europe to become what he hoped for: a cooperative and harmonious union. Thus, when the Wall of Berlin fell, Delors immediately pushed for reunification and the unlocking of funds to support it as this would be fruitful for establishing a monetary union. German Chancellor Kohl accepted the project for the Euro and the abandonment of the German Mark before the end of the millennium. 

Under his presidency at the Commission, Jacques Delors saw the creation and signing of the Treaty of the European Union, also known as the Maastricht Treaty, in 1992, formally creating the European Union. Delors' work towards a single internal market for capital, goods and the free circulation of people marked the end of his time at the Commission. The Schengen treaty was finally ratified and applied in all EU member states in 1995. Though he was a favourite to become François Mitterrand's successor, Jacques Delors decided not to pursue candidacy in the French Presidential election of 1995. Had he been elected, it undoubtedly would have kept the Parti Socialiste (Socialist Party) alive in France into the new millennium. 

Jacques Delors was fundamental to the construction of our modern Europe and his work in Europe's social, monetary and economic arenas created the EU. Because of this he is one of only three people appointed by the European Council as an "Honorary Citizen of Europe". Delors' insatiable aspirations to build an ever-stronger and interconnected community make him the embodiment of European ideals.


As a student of European governance, there is not one day that goes by where I do not reference the pioneering work of Jacques Delors. In the current economic context of the EU, particularly in discussions for a fiscal union, let us remember the influential work of Delors by keeping his legacy of cooperation in Europe alive. 

Image: Bruno Fert/via Le Monde

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