The Irish Times view on the legacy of Jacques Delors : the EU's constant job of reinvention

Delors argued that Europe is stronger if it can work together- while times have changed, it is an insight which remains relevant today

Jacques Delors, the former president of the European Commission who has died at 98, will be counted among the giants of European integration – alongside names such as Jean Monnet, Robert Schuman and Konrad Adenauer, who laid the foundations of the European Economic Community. Its evolution into the European Union was very much the Delors project. It wasn’t just a name change or an expression of what the treaties spoke of as “an ever-closer union”. It was an essential redefining of the whole project, a coming of age, arising from Delors’s understanding that an EU based solely on the market and trade could never suffice.

“What I see is European construction drifting towards a free trade zone – that is to say an English-style Europe which I reject,” he told the London Times, prophetically, in 1993. " If we do nothing it will lead in 15 years to a break-up. I reject a Europe that would be just a market, a free trade zone without a soul, without a conscience, without political will, without a social dimension.”

Delors’s Single European Act unified and opened up the Single Market, providing not only for the free circulation of capital, goods and services but also people, and in the early 1990s laid the basis for currency union and political union. The price, he insisted, for a sharing of economic power, was the necessity of strengthening social union, a role for Europe in protecting its most vulnerable people and states, contributing in no small measure to Ireland’s economic growth and to the peace funds the EU ploughed into the North.

Delors was never afraid to use the “F-word”, federalism, about his vision of the European project. “National sovereignty no longer means much ... voluntary co-operation never works,” he once said. “In order to face American and Japanese challenges we need to be supranational.” Sovereignty enhanced, not diminished.

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His was an era which was central to Ireland’s economic, social and political development. The move towards the building of the Single Market, alongside significant funding from the EU, allowed Ireland to invest heavily in infrastructure and skills, while attracting foreign investment, particularly from the US. Meanwhile the introduction of the single currency has been a central factor in Ireland’s economy and in the story of booms, busts and, more recently, the contrasting response to Covid-19 and the cost-of-living crisis.

The single currency project remains unfinished. And the EU, a union now grown to 27 states, faces new crises, from the war in Ukraine, to migration and the rise of the far right.

The European Commission has not seen a leader as forceful since he left. And now the parameters have changed. But the legacy of Jacques Delors is the argument that Europe remains stronger if it can work together through troubled times, rather than drifting apart.