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The Tremendous Legacy of the Late Jacques Delors

On December 27, Jacques Delors, former president of the European Commission (1985–1995) passed away. He was the architect of the European single market and of the unity the EU now enjoys. With nationalism rising and European elections on the horizon, Europeans are challenged to carry on his legacy.
Jacques Delors

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December 30, 2023 04:09 EDT

On December 27, Jacques Delors passed away at the age of 98. He served as president of the European Commission from 1985 to 1995. With his death, a certain idea of the left and of European integration is in danger of disappearing.

For many French people, Jacques Delors will remain above all the great architect of the European Union, the leader who was at the origin of the Euro and the European Single Market.

They also remember the politician, François Mitterrand’s economy minister, whose humility and modern conception of socialism led him to give up the race for the presidential election in 1995. “Either I lied to the country or I lied to the Socialists,” he explained, pointing to the gap between his project of reconciling solidarity a market economy and the incantatory, quasi-revolutionary discourse of the French Socialist Party.

His daughter, Martine Aubry, tried to take up the torch 17 years later, without success.

Delors’ realistic vision of socialism

For a generation of European activists who defined themselves as “left-wing,” Jacques Delors was above all one of the architects of European social democracy and of the “second French left” alongside Michel Rocard.

Rooted in Christian trade unionism but also in the legacy of Hannah Arendt and the personalism of Emmanuel Mounier, Jacques Delors’ socialist thought was marked by a certain conception of reform, social justice and the rejection of ideological posturing. He sought a third way between economic liberalism and totalitarian communism.

The social democracy of this great politician is above all that of dialogue and the social contract between employers and employees’ representatives. He combined budgetary rigor with aid to the most deprived. He believed that the best weapon against unemployment was lifelong learning. At both the national and European levels, he advocated negotiation between divergent interests and social contract rather than the myth of a grand soir, or revolution, that would overthrow all inequalities overnight.

What remains of this realist left? In today’s France, not much. During the last presidential election, in 2022, its natural candidate, Anne Hidalgo, mayor of Paris, former advisor to Martine Aubry, barely reached 2% while the radical left embodied by Jean-Luc Mélenchon galloped into 20.3%.

Some see the current French president, Emmanuel Macron, as Delors’ heir. Admittedly, the current occupant of the Elysée seeks to make the European Union a real power, but his mantra of following left- and right-inspired policy proposals “at the same time” does not find its source in the vision of a social market economy based on a culture of consensus. Macron’s “at the same time” is above all a tactical pragmatism that seeks to occupy the center-right.

Delors’ legacy of European integration

What remains of Jacques Delors’ vision at the European level?

The very glue that holds the European Union together today is Delors’ legacy. As president of the European Commission, Delors created the founding elements of the cohesion of the European Union as it is today. Alongside François Mitterrand and Helmut Kohl, his influence was decisive in the adoption of the 1987 Single European Act, which created the European single market, and then with the Maastricht Treaty, which set the eventual adoption of the single currency in motion. Indeed, it was at the European level that Delors was able to put his mantra into practice: “Competition that stimulates, cooperation that strengthens, solidarity that unites.”

In terms of solidarity, Delors was at the origin of the Cohesion Fund, which supports the enlargement of the EU by subsidizing less developed new entrants. He also championed the Erasmus university exchange program and the Fund to Assist the Most Deprived. These concrete achievements have proven wrong the detractors who claimed that the EU would be nothing more than a large liberal market whose policies would run counter to the priorities of European citizens.

Today’s EU remains an alliance between market efficiency and solidarity. It has shown this during the COVID-19 crisis with its major recovery plan and in the face of the climate emergency with its Green Deal. The recent adoption of a new pact on asylum and immigration is also a good example of consensus among divergent visions of welcoming foreigners on European soil. But this European unity is only built in response to crises.

Nationalism and the far right are now threatening the general European interest and its fragile unity. On the eve of the European elections in June 2024, the generation of activists for the European cause is facing this challenge: to keep Delors’ humanist legacy alive and renew it, to innovate and to build a more inspiring idea of Europe for future generations.

Renewing this heritage means giving job prospects and social well-being to the working classes tempted by extremes and populist votes. It is only in a new social contract, built sector by sector around a reindustrialization that takes social rights and the environment into account, that this European cohesion can last. This profound economic transformation, along with a new, more assertive European diplomacy based on co-development, can constitute this necessary renewed European social contract dear to Jacques Delors. It is still possible to take this path.

[Anton Schauble edited this piece.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.


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