What would Jacques Delors say today about the way forward for Europe? When a major political figure is no longer with us, this question comes up. Of course, there can be no definitive answer, but the debate it generates can be very relevant. Without any pretence of enunciating an authentic interpretation, I am participating in this debate as someone who has been in direct dialogue with him for 20 years.
Any attempt to answer this question must start by identifying the great impulses that redefined the direction of the European project, of which Delors was a protagonist and architect. The first big push came in the 1980s with the Single European Market, the Single Act amending the Treaty of Rome, the enlargement to the South and the cohesion policy. The second one came in the 1990s, with the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the consequent need to enlarge to the East and to deepen the European construction with the establishment of the Economic and Monetary Union and the European citizenship, enshrined in the Maastricht Treaty in 1993.
These two great impulses have some common features. First, they both responded to a major change in the international context: the American competitive challenge and the fall of the dictatorships in Southern Europe in the first case; and the European reunification after the collapse of the Soviet Union in the second. A second common feature was the need to accompany enlargement with the deepening of European integration to avoid future paralysis: in the first case, this was done by introducing qualified majority voting with the Single Act; in the second, the Maastricht Treaty introduced the co-decision procedure which gave legislative authority to the European Parliament. A third one was the concern to safeguard internal European cohesion, which was done by strengthening the cohesion instruments during the first push, enshrining the European employment strategy in the second one and always promoting the dialogue with social partners to find better solutions.
The method used by Delors to prepare, influence or articulate all these decisions involved a remarkable combination of ingredients: listening to a great diversity of groups, skills and opinion; rigorous analysis of the facts; permanent work with teams; pedagogical and never demagogic communication; a strong ethical and social sense. And, on top of all this, an imagination and ambition with a vast and long horizon, and the ability to mobilise a wide range of forces. We know how difficult it is to practice this method in today’s governance systems, but it is good to remember and not give up.
It was with this Delors that I dealt with for years, also having the privilege of consulting him when I was part of the Portuguese Presidency of the European Union in 2000, and it was possible to adopt the first European strategy for development, employment and social cohesion, after this had been blocked when Delors launched this new ambitious idea with his White Paper. Once again, I could deal with him during the Portuguese Presidency in 2007, when the Treaty of Lisbon was adopted after the Constitutional Treaty was rejected by a referendum in France. I remember well the straightforwardness with which he assessed failures, but also the determination with which he sought to overcome them with new solutions.
Our last contact was during the dramatic period of the eurozone crisis, when he had reduced his physical presence, but not his personal one. His commitment to finding more advanced forms of European solidarity remained intact, even later, during the pandemic, when it was finally possible to create a budgetary instrument financed by the issuance of European debt.
What would Delors say of the situation we are experiencing in Europe today?
We are living once again a dramatic change in the international context with the emergence of a multipolar world, the strategic rivalry between the US and China and the urgency to reform global governance. We have wars in the European neighbourhood, notably in Palestine, and on European territory, with the invasion of Ukraine by Putin’s Russia. The EU should position itself as a global actor with its own values, able to make bridges across the world and push for reformed multilateralism.
A new great enlargement to the East has become a political and moral imperative. But this major undertaking can only be achieved if it is combined with a new deepening of the European project, giving the EU the capacity to decide democratically more swiftly, to act and preserve its strategic autonomy, to invest in and shape the ecological and digital transitions, and to preserve its cohesion by applying the European pillar of social rights to all citizens as European citizens.
Could this be the functional equivalent of the Schengen agreement to increase mobility or of the Erasmus programme to open up education possibilities – both of them Delors’ initiatives to create a sense of common European belonging? A more fundamental discussion on a theme where Delors excelled – the very theory of European integration – is also needed, exploring sui generis paths, beyond simplistic views on federalism.
Given all this and the upcoming European elections, 2024 will demand for historic decisions in which Delors, as a progressive source of inspiration, should remain a central reference. Will this be the case?