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Jacques Delors, architect of the modern EU and 'Mr. Europe,' dies at 98

Jacques Delors of France, president of the European Commission, meets Britain's Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher for talks at 10 Downing Street, London, on Nov. 26, 1986. Delors has died in Paris at age 98.
Bob Dear
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AP
Jacques Delors of France, president of the European Commission, meets Britain's Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher for talks at 10 Downing Street, London, on Nov. 26, 1986. Delors has died in Paris at age 98.

BRUSSELS — Jacques Delors, a Paris bank messenger's son who became the visionary and builder of a more unified Europe in his momentous decade as chief executive of the European Union, has died in Paris, the Delors Institute think tank told The Associated Press on Wednesday. He was 98.

"The whole of Europe mourns the death of one of its greatest architects," the institute said in a statement. "The best results of European integration cannot be dissociated from the vision, the courage, the conviction, the perseverance and the relentless work which characterized Jacques Delors' work during his 10 years at the head of the European Commission."

Paying tribute, the office of French President Emmanuel Macron said: "This grandson of farmers and the son of a bank employee, whose rise was entirely due to his talent, never allowed the lofty heights to corrupt his human righteousness."

Delors "became the builder of the EU as we know it today," German Chancellor Olaf Scholz wrote on X, formerly Twitter. "It is our responsibility to continue his work today for the good of Europe."

For many, the owlish but hard-driving Socialist and Catholic was simply "Mr. Europe." The EU, which stretches these days from Finland to Portugal and is home to more than 500 million people, was dubbed "the house that Jacques built" by a popular biography.

Delors led the EU from 1985-1995

Under his 1985-1995 tenure at the head of the EU's bureaucracy in Brussels, member countries agreed to tear down barriers that prevented the free movement of capital, goods, services and people.

Delors was also key in drawing up the blueprint for economic and monetary union, which led to the creation of the European Central Bank and the euro currency.

The latter, considered by many to be Delors' masterpiece, is now official tender for 20 of the 27 EU nations.

But in the years leading up to his death, some of Delors' handiwork came under threat. A narrowly averted crisis over Greece shook the eurozone, while the EU's borders came under pressure from hundreds of thousands of refugees and other migrants, revealing fault lines within the bloc. In 2016, the U.K. voted to leave the EU in a repudiation of the "ever-closer union" the former EU Commission president toiled to forge.

Further expansion eastward of the EU into territory once controlled by Moscow had been halted by ferocious Kremlin opposition. And the economies of many of the bloc's member nations appeared to be stuck in idle, with persistent low growth rates and millions of people unable to find work.

He saw "a future filled with danger"

In remarks that may ring as true today as when he left office, Delors in 1995 cautioned fellow Europeans that "we have a future filled with danger." He insisted their countries, which spent centuries at one another's throats in devastating and bloody wars, must continue to strive for "agreements at political, social and economic levels."

For many, the moody Frenchman with big ideas yet painstaking attention to detail was the most influential figure in constructing a more united Europe since the postwar founders of the Common Market decided to bind their nations together to prevent another war.

Wim Kok, a former Dutch prime minister, admiringly called Delors the man "who for 10 years determined the face of Europe like no other."

"I am satisfied like an artisan from whom someone ordered a table and chairs, who did everything he could to craft a fine work, and who today sees it in front of him," Delors told a newspaper reporter in 1998, three years after leaving Brussels. He added: "I consider myself to be only one element in the chain."

The EU — called the European Community when Delors took the helm — grew from 10 nations to 12 during his tenure, with a clear promise of the far greater expansion that has since taken place.

After the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, Delors moved quickly to prepare the organization for the admission of former communist countries from Eastern Europe.

From a narrowly focused "trade bloc," it branched out into areas that were once the jealously guarded purview of individual governments, like foreign policy, customs and border controls, justice and home affairs.

Britain viewed Delors as an overreaching Eurocrat

But for many, especially in countries like Britain, Delors became the reviled personification of the overreaching Eurocrat bent on meddling in virtually all aspects of people's lives. One London tabloid called on readers to show their hostility to "the French fool" by assembling and shouting in unison: "Up Yours Delors."

British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, though using more genteel language, insisted on her country's sovereign right to fix its own course in many areas.

Delors pushed the grouping of countries far beyond its original role as an economic club toward his dream of a united Europe. He wanted to give it the institutions and tools to rival the United States and Japan, and to make it a force for peace, prosperity and security.

His vision of a federal Europe — he spoke of "a germ of a European government" — was a step too far for some.

"By the time you get to the mid '90s, there are signs of a significant backlash against European integration," said N. Piers Ludlow, associate professor at the London School of Economics and Political Science. "A potential European superstate was always thought of as science fiction, but that specter becomes a lot more credible."

Ludlow said Delors was "in a league of his own" as EU Commission president but that he overreached at the end, alienating some European leaders who became "fed up with this guy who hogged the limelight." A German businessman once likened Delors to the autocratic King Louis XIV of France.

In 1992, the Maastricht Treaty that founded the EU clipped the wings of the Commission and its president, not granting them all the powers Delors had sought.

In his farewell address to the European Parliament in January 1995, Delors expressed satisfaction with what he was leaving his successors.

"The foundations of the European house have been laid, and they're solid," he said. "Let's make sure they don't suffer any damage."

Delors liked jazz, Hollywood movies and basketball, but thought American society too ruthless.

"It's like a Western, with good guys and bad guys, where the weak don't have a place," he said. The European model, kinder and more social-minded, "remains superior," he said.

A reluctant politician

Somewhat shy, he was a reluctant politician, only seeking minor electoral offices during his career: a seat in the European Parliament, and the mayoralty of a Paris suburb. After he left Brussels, France's presidency seemed within easy reach, but he declined to run.

His daughter Martine Aubry also went into politics and is now the mayor of the northern French city of Lille.

"People say I'm an intellectual who wandered into politics," Delors once reflected. Post-Brussels, he opened a think tank in his native Paris. His pronouncements on European policy issues were carefully scrutinized.

Delors was a rarity in French public life: a self-made man from a working-class home who did not come up through the prestigious "grandes ecoles." Instead, he took night-school classes in economics.

In 1981-84, he served as France's finance minister under President Francois Mitterrand before Mitterrand and German Chancellor Helmut Kohl tapped him to run the EU's executive branch.

Biographer Charles Grant found him a ball of contradictions, writing:

"He is a socialist trade unionist who once worked for a Gaullist prime minister who describes himself as a closet Christian Democrat. He is a practicing 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."

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