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Adekeye Adebajo | Jacques Delors: Father of the European Union

Published:Sunday | April 7, 2024 | 12:08 AM
EU commissioner for Internal Market and Services, Michel Barnier, and  Jacques Delors, former president of the European Commission, hold a press conference after their speeches, at the conference ‘20 ans après: Quels enjeux pour le marché unique?’, a
EU commissioner for Internal Market and Services, Michel Barnier, and Jacques Delors, former president of the European Commission, hold a press conference after their speeches, at the conference ‘20 ans après: Quels enjeux pour le marché unique?’, at the Congress Center of the French Ministry of Finances, Paris, November 6, 2012.
Adekeye Adebajo
Adekeye Adebajo

Given how crucial regional cooperation is to Africa where intra-regional trade is a paltry 14 per cent, there was a surprisingly muted response to the recent death, at 98, of one of last century’s greatest architects of regional integration: Jacques Delors, the former president of the European Commission (1985-1994). French journalist Françoise Fressoz described him as “one of the great Christian democrats who made Europe”. Delors was the heir of his compatriot, Jean Monnet, who had headed the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) – forerunner of the European Economic Community (EEC), founded in 1957.

With strong working-class roots as the grandson of French farmers, Delors’ father, Louis, worked as a messenger at the Banque de France, an institution which he pushed his son to join. Jacques married Marie Lephaille, who he had met at the bank, and they had a daughter, Martine Aubry, the long-serving mayor of Lille, and a journalist son, Jean-Paul, who tragically died of leukaemia at 29. Delors took night classes to earn an economics degree from the University of Paris. Religious and civic-minded, the French dubbed him grenouille de bénitier ( a ‘church hen’). He became involved in supporting trade unions to fight social injustice, joined the French economic planning commission, and demonstrated his pragmatism by serving Gaullist prime minister, Jacques Chaban-Delmas (1969-1972) at the Matignon, earning himself the enduring distrust of both right and left.

Delors sat in the European Parliament for two years before serving as France’s economics and finance minister under Socialist president, François Mitterrand, between 1981 and 1984. He met with journalists every week, and learned the importance of communicating his ideas: a trait he took with him to Brussels. He again demonstrated his determination to forego ideological straitjackets in order to find practical solutions by stabilising the falling franc, fighting inflation, and implementing an austerity budget while seeking to protect workers and promote social welfare. He threw tantrums and threatened to resign several times. Intensely shy and sometimes self-deprecating, he was a melancholic and brooding presence in cabinet, suffering bouts of depressive mood swings and sciatica. Delors had two big regrets in French politics: not accepting the premiership of France from Mitterrand while finance minister, and not running for president of his country in 1995 when he was its most popular politician. Despite his tremendous self-confidence, the fear of failure persistently haunted him.


Delors was the first three-time president of the European Commission, overseeing a period of unparalleled success not witnessed since the halcyon integrationist days of the 1960s. A meticulous workaholic, he had an astonishing grasp of technical detail which earned him the trust of the heads of state on the European Council. On assuming office, he immediately pushed the 1985 Schengen agreement, which abolished border controls between five core EEC states and now has 27 states as part of a “borderless Europe”. The dynamism of the new commission was evidenced by the fact that, in the first six months of 1988 alone, Delors’ hyperactive commission took more decisions than the body had done in the decade between 1974 and 1984.

During his tenure, the commission also achieved a single market for people, goods, capital and services by 1992, through the 1986 Single European Act which Delors regarded as his finest achievement. The act also gave the community new “competences” in employment, development, the environment, and technological research. The 1992 Maastricht Treaty mandated a single currency – the euro – created in 1999 and now used by 20 European Union countries. Delors further promoted a common defence and foreign policy, and oversaw the birth of the European Union in 1993. This golden age of integration significantly coincided with the reunification of Germany and the end of the Cold War: historic events which facilitated Delors’ push for European integration. He argued that “the only choice Europe has is between survival and decline”, insisting that a supranational Union was the only way to compete with the US and Japan at a time when China was still two decades away from becoming an economic superpower. The EU increased its membership from 10 to 15 under Delors’ energetic leadership.

Before the Frenchman entered the commission in 1985, commissioners ran their divisions as lords of the manor in charge of semi-independent fiefdoms, and the president was primus inter pares among the 17 commissioners in the “college”. Delors’ British biographer, Charles Grant, described how his subject instituted a bureaucratic revolution that led to power and ideas being centralised and flowing top-down rather than bottom-up. His methods were ruthless and unorthodox – Delors himself admitted that his leadership was at first authoritarian”– relying on a clandestine network of largely French officials planted in strategic positions within the 17,000-strong commission. His use of this informal réseaux sapped the morale of some of his most senior Eurocrats.


Delors had always understood, from his time as French finance minister, the importance of cultivating powerful friends to get things done. As commission president, he was close to Spain’s Felipe Gonzalez, Italy’s Giulio Andreotti, Holland’s Ruud Lubbers, and Belgium’s Wilfried Martens. Despite a widespread assumption that his success was linked to support from a former political patron, François Mitterrand, Delors’ closest relationship was actually with Helmut Kohl, the German chancellor and paymaster of the European project. It was Kohl who had proposed Delors for election as commission president in 1984, and not the Elysée Palace which preferred French foreign minister Claude Cheysson. Delors supported German reunification early, even as Mitterrand and Britain’s Margaret Thatcher dithered. The commission president and German chancellor met privately about once a month, including in Kohl’s hometown in the Rhineland-Palatinate. Both men were down-to-earth and had a wry sense of humour.

For all his strengths, Delors could sometimes be petty and petulant. As in France, he threatened to resign at least a dozen times a year if he did not get his way, throwing tantrums in front of leaders, ministers, and commissioners. He was also sometimes accused of being a French nationalist who defended the parochial interests of French state-owned enterprises and the Gallic farming lobby, at a time when 70 per cent of the EU budget was spent on agriculture.

Delors’ compatriot, Pascal Lamy, who later became director-general of the World Trade Organization, was Delors’ chef de cabinet at the commission and the eminence grise behind his success. Critics invariably compared Lamy to manipulative figures of monarchical European courts like Machiavelli and Rasputin. He was intelligent, industrious, efficient and ruthless, and more powerful than any of the 16 commissioners, often acting as an enforcer while taking responsibility for unpopular decisions in a way that shielded Delors, who loathed direct confrontation with opponents.

Lamy was an énarque (a graduate of France’s elite Ecole Nationale d’Administration), while the working-class Delors admitted to an inferiority complex at not having attended any of France’s grandes écoles. Though he hated the grubby games that politicians often feel forced to play, Delors would ironically become the consummate dealmaker, stitching together visionary political compromises in his quest to build Europe. As he prepared to leave the EU, the commission’s most effective president eloquently summed up his own legacy: “Some of the houses I build stand up, some crumble: I think of myself as an engineer, and less a philosopher or political leader … . My job is to provide momentum, ideas, initiatives.”

Professor Adekeye Adebajo is a senior research fellow at the University of Pretoria’s Centre for the Advancement of Scholarship in South Africa. Send feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com.