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Europe pays tribute to ‘visionary’ ex-EU chief Delors who died at 98

Tributes from across Europe poured in for Jacques Delors, a former EU Commission chief who played an instrumental role in European integration, following his death on Wednesday (27 December) at 98

By: EBR - Posted: Thursday, December 28, 2023


Tributes from across Europe poured in for Jacques Delors, a former EU Commission chief who played an instrumental role in European integration, following his death on Wednesday (27 December) at 98.

For both fans and foes of the European project, Delors was Brussels’ driving force during the EU’s greatest period of integration, the creation of the single market and the euro.

In his native France the statesman was a respected figure in the remaking of the centre-left under Francois Mitterrand, for many perhaps the greatest president the country never had.

Born in Paris on 20 July 1925, Delors grew up in a family of seven children.

His father was a humble cashier at the Banque de France where a young Delors later worked as a clerk. He studied in the evenings and joined the Christian trade union federation CFTC.

In 1962 he joined the civil service as an adviser on social affairs. As Mitterrand’s finance minister he pursued orthodox economic policies that alienated him from the traditional left.

In 1984, Mitterrand wanted to make Delors prime minister, but he offended the president by asking to keep his finance portfolio alongside the top job, and he was sidelined.

Mitterrand would later declare bitterly: “He’ll be remembered for his role at the European Commission, but in politics: zero.”

Citizen of Europe

But it would indeed be in his Brussels role that Delors would enter history, taking the job of EU chief executive in 1985 after two years in the European Parliament.

Delors’ vision of Europe as a federation of nation states and his workaholic doggedness would see him compared to the post-war founders of the European project, Jean Monnet and Robert Schuman.

In 2015 he was named a “Citizen of Europe”, becoming the last person to receive an honour only Monnet and former German chancellor Helmut Kohl had previously enjoyed.

Under the Delors presidency the man who had once reassured world markets that France’s budget was in safe hands would lay the foundation of what would become Europe’s monetary union.

A passionate educationalist, he would also found the Erasmus programme of university exchanges, helping educate a whole new generation of young Europeans with a greater EU identity.

This passion for closer union also made him enemies.

Across the Channel in the UK, prime ministers Margaret Thatcher and John Major adopted him as a foil — the archetypal “Brussels bureaucrat”, constraining British sovereignty.

As a teenager, Delors had lived in German-occupied Paris, and always said Europe would know lasting peace only if its main powers became so entwined they could never again go to war.

For Delors’ generation this proved the need for the euro and he was frustrated after he stood down at what he saw as Europe’s failure to build on his economic success to find political momentum for unity.

As soon as the news of Delors death was announced in the evening of Wednesday, tributes from across the continent started flowing.

“Generations of Europeans will continue to benefit from his legacy,” declared the speaker of the European Parliament, Roberta Metsola, a Maltese conservative hailing a French socialist.

Another conservative, the current president of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen, declared: “Jacques Delors was a visionary who made our Europe stronger.

“His life’s work is a united, dynamic and prosperous European Union,” the German Commission chief said.

European Council President Charles Michel said Delors “led the transformation of the European Economic Community towards a true Union”.

“A great Frenchman and a great European, he went down in history as one of the builders of our Europe,” Michel posted on social media.

European Central Bank chief Christine Lagarde highlighted Delors’s role for the single European market and “the path he laid out towards our single currency, the euro”.

Europe, she said, “has lost a true statesman”.

‘Statesman with a French destiny’

French President Emmanuel Macron called his fellow countryman a “tireless creator of our Europe”.

Posting on X, formerly Twitter, Macron said “his commitment, his ideal and his rectitude will always inspire us”.

Delors was “a statesman with a French destiny”, Macron added.

Olivier Faure, head of the French Socialist party where Delors was a towering figure, said “a giant has left us”.

Delors sought to “overcome tragedy by building a durable peace” after World War II ravaged Europe, Faure added.

‘Founding father’

“Modern Europe today loses its founding father,” said Enrico Letta, a former Italian prime minister who currently heads the Jacques Delors Institute created by the ex-EU commission chief.

Writing on X, Italian Foreign Minister Antonio Tajani praised “a personality who showed, on the basis of Christian values, the path of strengthening Europe”.

‘Visionary’

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz hailed Delors as a “visionary” and an “architect of the EU as we know it”.

Delors fought for European unity “like few others”, Scholz added in a message posted on X, urging Europeans to continue his work for the continent’s benefit.

‘What many thought impossible’

Delors and his wife Marie lived in Paris after his retirement. They had two children: a son, Jean-Paul, who died of cancer in 1982, and a daughter, former French socialist leader Martine Aubry.

Belgium’s Prime Minister Alexander De Croo also hailed the EU’s “founding father”, whose “project for a stronger and more secure union remains hugely relevant for the Europe of tomorrow”.

Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez said that Delors “always believed in a united, open and prosperous Europe”.

“He worked to make what many thought impossible a reality,” Sanchez wrote on X.

“Jacques Delors was a visionary leader as well as a pragmatic politician who promoted the European idea […] The Greeks do not forget his support and solidarity in every difficult moment of the country”, said in a statement Greek PM Kyriakos Mitsotakis.

Delors and his wife Marie lived in Paris after his retirement. They had two children: a son, Jean-Paul, who died of cancer in 1982, and a daughter, former French socialist leader Martine Aubry.

*first published in: Euractiv.com

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