Delors, or Why Nothing is Possible without Certain People

Ignacio Molina

6 mins - 3 de Enero de 2024, 07:00

Many obituaries these days glossing the figure of Jacques Delors conclude that there has never been a more important President of the European Commission than him. This is not true. There has been one who surpasses him in that honour. And it is not a matter of making a measly tribute at a time when it is appropriate to be generous to an already transcendental figure who has just passed away. On the contrary, this remark is intended to highlight his legacy even more. Just as Abraham Lincoln is extolled as the second great US president (after George Washington, who after all founded the nation, defined the office, and inaugurated it), thus Delors is given greater historical prominence by mentioning him immediately after Jean Monnet who, despite the usual oblivion of analysts, preceded him in office three quarters of a century ago.

Monnet did not win a war of independence in America, but he did win the peace of interdependence in Europe by conceiving the process of integration and inserting into it the 'High Authority', of which he was the first president between 1952 and 1954. Although somewhat later the Treaty of Rome preferred to use the – rather uglier – name of 'the Commission', it was in substance the same collegial executive body responsible for looking after the general interest of the supranational project; perhaps the most original design for political domination since Machiavelli, Bodin, and Hobbes invented the sovereign state.

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Delors took over the Commission thirty years after Monnet's departure. It was a very delicate moment for European integration due to the long stagnation caused by the recession of the 1970s. But within a few months of arriving in Brussels, he had already succeeded in making that sort of eurosclerosis a thing of the past, and the buzzword for integration became 'relaunch'.

The milestones that marked his decade as President are formidable. The Europe of 1985 was called the EEC, consisted of only ten member states, operated a highly fragmented Common Market, had an unused unit of account, spent its entire budget on agriculture, had no freedom of movement, and had no competence in foreign policy. By the time Delors left office in 1995, however, the organisation had been reformulated as the European Union, the two most successful enlargements of the seven that had taken place had been completed, a huge amount of regulatory harmonisation work had made it possible to speak of a true Internal Market, the creation of the euro had been approved, financial resources to meet cohesion objectives had been doubled twice over, Schengen or European citizenship was in force, and the first joint military missions had been decided.

No doubt Delors was also a lucky man, who benefited from living in an era of economic growth, general optimism due to the end of the Cold War, complicity with a European Parliament that was no longer consultative and coincidence with leaders who were also strong in the capitals: Kohl, Mitterrand, Thatcher, and González. All in all, it is no exaggeration to attribute to him an important personal merit in the historical development of the project, and even the two great traditional schools of European studies, neo-functionalism, and intergovernmentalism, reformulated themselves to consider his impact.

The original neo-functionalists argued that integration would progress gradually by functional spill-over from one area to another (from coal and steel to the single currency) without the intervention of any providential actor. In the early 1990s, however, the theory evolved towards a supranational institutionalism that did admit vital explanatory value to an elite alliance that had just come into being at the time between large European business groups and a strong Commission with its own agenda.

For their part, the first intergovernmentalists attributed the merit of any progress to the will and relative power of the Member States, which would be the main decision-makers, reducing the Commission to the role of a mere agent. After Delors, however, this realism was tempered to admit that, along with the conjunction of national interests, supranational institutions also play an essential role in facilitating and even generating inter-state consensus. There are even cases of some capitals that turn to Brussels to help them to shape their own national project or to facilitate their internal functioning.

In any case, it was precisely Monnet who was able to give the best explanation of the general dynamics of the process and the mark that certain individuals can leave on it with a simple and accurate phrase: "nothing is possible without people, nothing is lasting without institutions". Delors pushed not only for a thousand concrete initiatives but also for significant treaty reforms – new competences in many areas, extension of qualified majority voting in the Council, co-decision with Parliament, creation of the court of first instance, adoption of the Copenhagen criteria – which have proved key in the long term.

The framework established in those years has allowed much progress to be made and for a long time, but it is inevitable that any momentum will gradually lose momentum. Just as the founding moment of integration petered out, necessitating a relaunch in the 1980s, since 2005, with the failure of the Constitutional Treaty and the subsequent era of polycrisis, another decline has become increasingly evident. It is true that today (after the closing of ranks following Brexit, the pandemic, and Russian aggression) certain conditions are in place for a new revival. However, this will end up being frustrated if there are no politicians willing to deploy their agency in a deepening reform that would make this window of opportunity last. In that case, history will not judge them so kindly.
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