Jacques Delors, Passionate Architect of European Unity, Dies at 98

Jacques Delors, a hard-driving French politician who as the European Union’s executive for a decade became the chief architect of a more unified Europe and the father of Europe’s common currency, the euro, died on Wednesday at his home in Paris. He was 98.

His death was confirmed by a spokesman for his daughter, the French politician Martine Aubry.

As president of the European Commission, the European Union’s executive body, from 1985 through 1994, Mr. Delors maintained a nearly religious faith in the principle of a federal and communal Europe, even as the eurozone debt crisis, a contentious debate over migration and the essential question of whether rich northern countries would keep providing funds to their near bankrupt neighbors in southern Europe threatened to rip this vision apart.

Despite such conflicts, Britain has been the only country to leave, which it did in 2020, and the union has grown to 27 countries, compared with 10 when Mr. Delors took the helm in 1985. Twenty of those countries use the euro, legal tender for about 350 million people.

The philosophical heir to Jean Monnet, another steely French technocrat who laid the original groundwork for a federal Europe, Mr. Delors laid out a timeline for the euro in the so-called Delors report in 1989. The euro was formally adopted in 10 years later.

The report explained explicitly how countries would surrender control of their monetary policy to a common central bank. But, as Mr. Delors later conceded, it skated over the more intractable question of how Europe would impose similar control over national budgetary policies.

“The finance ministers did not want to see anything disagreeable which they would be forced to deal with,” he said in an interview with the British newspaper The Daily Telegraph in 2011. The choice for countries, he said, was “either to accept a greater transfer of sovereignty or to submit to a common discipline.”

Mr. Delors, a man of seemingly boundless energy with a reputation for doing whatever wheedling and cajoling it took to achieve a deal, was both a visionary figure and a divisive one. He sought to build a more united Europe, capable of matching the United States and Japan on the world stage. As the son of a man who fought in World War I and a witness to World War II, he saw increased integration as the best way to avoid a return to the destructive forces of nationalism that had produced devastating European wars over the centuries.

His tools included the Single European Act of 1986, which provided for the free circulation of people, capital, goods and services among the 12 nations that were then the European Community, and the Maastricht Treaty, signed in 1992, which paved the way for the euro and committed the member nations to joint foreign policy and security goals.

But his push for faster and deeper European integration also met resistance, especially in Britain under Margaret Thatcher, who was prime minister during much of Mr. Delors’s tenure. The two sparred frequently over his policies, which she considered meddling in the internal affairs of member countries. He had better relations with Germany’s chancellor, Helmut Kohl, who shared his vision for a united Europe.

Mr. Delors, far left, at an economic summit in Houston in 1990 with, from left, the leaders of Italy, West Germany, France, the United States, Britain, Canada and Japan.Credit…Associated Press

Mr. Delors was, according to Charles Grant, the author of the biography “Delors: Inside the House That Jacques Built” (1994), a mass of contradictions.

“He is a Socialist trades unionist who once worked for a Gaullist prime minister and described himself as a closet Christian Democrat,” Mr. Grant wrote. “He is a practicing Roman Catholic who takes moral stances and claims not to be ambitious; yet he is a crafty political tactician who enjoys power and has held the Commission in an iron grip. He is a patriotic Frenchman with a vision of a unified Europe.”

Jacques Lucien Jean Delors was born on July 20, 1925, in a working-class district of Paris. His father, Louis, was a tax collector for the French central bank. He earned a degree in economics from the Sorbonne, not one of the prestigious institutions known as the grandes écoles that usually serve as passports to the top echelons of public life in France. He developed passions for sports, jazz and American films.

At his father’s urging he joined the central bank, where he became involved in trade unionism and grew interested in social issues. In 1962, he was appointed to France’s powerful economic planning commission, and in 1969 he was named a social affairs adviser to Prime Minister Jacques Chaban-Delmas.

After that government fell, Mr. Delors became an associate professor at the University of Paris-Dauphine, joined the Socialist Party and was elected to the European Parliament in 1979. When François Mitterrand won the presidency in 1981, Mr. Delors was named finance minister in a government committed to nationalizing many banks and major industries, vastly increasing public spending and raising taxes on the wealthy.

Although he tried to water down these commitments, he was forced to devalue the franc three times to bolster the economy after Mr. Mitterrand’s socialist policies had undermined confidence in the currency. He finally persuaded the president to switch to a more austere economic policy, accepting cuts in public spending and a freeze on wages and prices.

In 1983, Mr. Delors was offered the position of prime minister, part of an effort to rebuild international confidence in the economy. But Mr. Mitterrand withdrew the offer when Mr. Delors asked to keep a large measure of responsibility for economic policy.

Mr. Delors’s politics were difficult to pin down. He once said that he was always “on the right of the left and the left of the right, rejected by both.”

Though Mr. Mitterrand later described Mr. Delors as insufficiently socialist to ever head the government, he successfully lobbied for his appointment in 1985 to the presidency of the European Commission.

Mr. Delors once sought to invigorate the organization by, among other things, forging an agreement to eliminate the remaining barriers to the free movement of goods, capital and people among the member states.

For believers in integration, this was a step toward closer political union and a common currency. Even skeptics like Mrs. Thatcher conceded that it would be a useful way to stimulate growth and reduce unemployment, and the treaty, known as the Single European Act, was adopted and laid the basis for a united Europe. Mr. Delors called it his finest achievement.

Mr. Delors frequently sparred with Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher of Britain, seen here greeting him in London in 1984. She considered many of his policies to be meddling in Britain’s internal affairs.Credit…Associated Press

There were other accomplishments during his tenure. Budgetary packages put the European Community’s finances on a sound basis and quadrupled aid to poorer areas. The European Economic Area extended free trade to surrounding nonmember countries. The Delors report on economic and monetary union laid the basis for the Maastricht Treaty.

The treaty locked a reunited Germany into the European Union through its acceptance of the euro, though at the price of giving control over monetary policy to an independent European Central Bank modeled on the German Bundesbank.

Reluctance in France and Britain kept the commitment to political unity, an aspirational United States of Europe, weak. Still, four countries — Austria, Norway, Finland and Sweden — joined the union during Mr. Delors’s presidency.

Mr. Delors’s married Marie Lephaille in 1948. She died in 2020. Their son, Jean-Paul, died of leukemia in 1982. Their daughter, Ms. Aubry, is a prominent Socialist politician and the longtime mayor of Lille, a city in northern France. In addition to her, Mr. Delors’s survivors include a granddaughter.

Toward the end of his tenure, Mr. Delors was increasingly perceived as arrogantly bent on strengthening the power of the European Union over its member states. Critics say the rise of a school of euroskeptic politicians in France, Britain and Denmark in the 1990s was a reaction to his overreach and a part of his legacy.

He remained popular in France, however. In 1994, he declined to run for president, even though polls put him comfortably ahead of Jacques Chirac, the eventual victor.

He was also held up, wistfully, as a model of leadership by some in Europe in the depths of the euro crisis.

“If Delors was in charge in Europe, Mitterrand in France and Kohl in Germany,” Theodoros Pangalos, the deputy prime minister of Greece, said in 2010, “things would not be the same.”

Paul Lewis, a former European correspondent for The Times, died in 2022. Landon Thomas, Aurelien Breeden and Herbert Buchsbaum contributed reporting.

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