The article was originally published on European Policy Centre portal.
On the 20th of July this year, the doyen of European integration, Jacques Delors, will celebrate his 95th birthday! During this time of uncertainty in the EU, unfinished enlargement processes, and confusion among the countries of the Western Balkans, it might be the right time to remember a man who, in circumstances that were just as difficult as those today, managed to leave an indelible mark on the political history of Europe. Having contributed towards creating the Single Market and formally establishing the EU and the EMU, he has earned the utmost respect from all of us involved in European Integration, regardless of whether we live in members states of the EU or in countries still in the waiting room as candidates.
Delors was appointed President of the European Commission in 1985 and served in this position for three mandates, until 1995. To this day, he is considered a president and a leader responsible for some of the most innovative changes to this institution, as well as to the European Union as a whole. His unique style of leadership and ability to bring different member states and opposing parties together behind a common cause are what has set him apart from the majority of his predecessors and successors.
Surely, the most significant developments during his presidency include the creation of the Single Market and formation of the Economic and Monetary Union of the European Union (EMU), as well as the formal establishment of the European Union (EU). All of the events pre-dating and leading up to these have shown what a remarkable leader Delors was.
Many agree that Delors embodied a “dual leadership concept”, being a leader of a supranational institution and operating within the intergovernmental space at the same time, which first proved successful with the 1985’s introduction of the Single Market Programme. After the Commission had published the “Completing the Internal Market” white paper, it was down to member states to do the bargaining on how to actually build the Single Market.
Just as in most instances of intergovernmental decision-making, collective action problems could have stalled the process and made consensus more difficult. However, given the reputation Delors had built in his past as French Minister of the Economy and Finance, whose economic policy provided the means for overcoming “Eurosclerosis”, i.e. the period of stagnation of European integration between the mid-1960s and the mid-1980s, he was able to get the backing of France and Germany for his Single Market initiatives. Through them he also succeeded in winning the support of other member states as well.
Still, it was not only his economic policy that won him trust among European leaders, but also his ideological stand. Delors was a left-wing, social Catholic who helped the French President Mitterrand reorganise the Left during the 1970s with his ability to bridge the gap between opposing factions of the Socialist Party, earning the president’s respect. Moreover, being a social Catholic, Delors could find a common ground with German Christian-democratic chancellors, thus solidifying the Franco-German partnership.
In addition to Delors’ favourable position within the international community, his “entrepreneurial” and “intellectual” approaches to leadership enabled him to fulfil his ambitions. Delors’ “entrepreneurial” leadership implies his ability to frame issues through his negotiating skills and to adapt to ever-changing circumstances in order to achieve his desired outcome.
His “intellectual” side was, on the other hand, shown in the ways he provided other participants in negotiations with an understanding of the issues at stake and helped them see beyond the old approaches. Before announcing the white paper, Delors had already toured the capitals of Europe, slowly preparing national leaders for what was to come and seeding the concepts of the Single Market and the EMU in their minds, thus pre-empting opposition before the bargaining process had even begun. Once negotiations had begun, the Commission helped the parties involved to find a win-win solution by showing them how completing the internal market was in everyone’s interest.
Delors, of course, could not have done this by himself, but had the support of his cabinet, whose members later explained their strategy with the “Bicycle” and “Russian Doll” metaphors. The former implied that once movement towards further integration had begun, it had to remain at a high speed throughout the process, not allowing the “bicycle” to fall over – as if it did fall, getting back up and moving forward would be extremely difficult.
The latter meant that each step of the integration ought to contain the seeds of the following one in order to generate support in advance and strengthen the Commission’s position relative to other negotiators. These methods first proved successful when the Single European Act (SEA) was signed in 1986. This success continued during the European Council’s deliberations, in which Delors outmanoeuvred his opposition, finally resulting in the establishment of the Single Market in 1993.
Besides the Single Market, Delors and his cabinet managed to revive the idea and enthusiasm of a monetary union as well, greatly contributing to the launching of the EMU. A variety of factors played a part in this process, but the single most influential one was played by Delors himself and, once again, his “entrepreneurial” style of leadership. Firstly, he placed the EMU highly on the Commission’s agenda, making it a priority issue and amplifying his own voice through this supranational institution.
The Commission acted as a staunch advocate and promoted the project as an obvious complement to the Single Market. Then, in 1988, with the help of Chancellor Kohl and President Mitterrand, Delors was appointed Chairman of the Committee for the Study of Economic and Monetary Union, better known as the Delors Committee. At first, within this group composed of member states’ central bank governors and experts, he encountered strong opposition to his ideas, but eventually, thanks to the aforementioned methods, Delors managed to form strong alliances with the committee members and reshape their positions regarding the EMU.
This allegiance proved strong when, in 1989, the central bank governors unanimously approved the Delors Report, the critical document outlining an incremental approach towards the formation of the EMU. The intergovernmental conferences on the EMU began in 1990, in which the report was extensively discussed and certain parts of it amended. Some member states, including the UK and Germany, were split on the EMU issue, and voiced their concerns about it, fearing a loss of sovereignty. As a consequence, Delors had to make use of his bargaining skills and the access he had among European elites, and, ultimately, keeping his report as the blueprint and basis, the EMU was finally established in Maastricht in 1992.
Considering his achievements, Delors remains one of the most influential Commission presidents. His innovative and strategic way of thinking and leading enabled him to overcome the otherwise constrained position of the Commission in the EU institutional system. His “bicycle” kept running, providing some of the most significant developments to the EU integration process. This, however, cannot be said about many other Commission presidents who have not exhibited the same ability – both those preceding and those succeeding him.
Finally, although since his presidency many member states have been fearful of appointing “another Delors”, capable of continually beating them at their own bargaining game, perhaps that is exactly what the EU needs right now: a leader who can bridge divisions within the Union and get the “bicycle” moving forward again.
Today, with the unfolding of Brexit, the migration crisis, the rise of nationalism and populism across Europe, and, of course, the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic and all of its implications, we must not forget that the average observer in the 1980s was not too optimistic about European integration and its success either. Sometimes, all it takes is the right person in the right place at the right time.
Dear Jacques Delors, we are all proud of the legacy you have left for Europe. Happy birthday, and greetings from Serbia!