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Obituary – Delors, architect of European Union

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Vienna, January 10, 2024

Architect of the EU

by Otmar Lahodynsky, former Brussels correspondent for profil, hon. AEJ President

Jacques Delors, who died at 98 in Paris just after Christmas, was a driving force in the creation of the European Union. Crucially, both the internal market and the Euro were inspired by his ideas.

Delors took over the leadership of the European Commission in 1985, when the 12 member states of the European Community were mainly concerned with agricultural and financial headaches such as an over-production of milk and beef. Margaret Thatcher, then British Prime Minister, famously secured a controversial rebate of Britain’s financial contributions (“We want our money back”).

At the time, the European Community was described as suffering from “Eurosclerosis.” Delorsresponded by  commissioning a study on the creation of an “internal market”. The free movement of goods, people, services and capital were to be introduced, with the abolition of tariffs and quantitative restrictions, and a product legally approved in one country were to be sold freely throughout the EU.

The start ol hostilities, London 1984

Protectionism had to be eliminated first, however. France wouldn’t allow English lawn mowers into the country: they were supposedly too loud for English sensibilities. Germany banned Italian tractors: the seats did not correspond to the anatomy of German farmers.

The EU Commission introduced over 300 regulations to eliminate such trade hurdles. A maximum permissible noise level for lawnmowers was introduced, and a guideline for suitable dimensions of tractor seats. Free trade in the internal market had, paradoxically, to be enforced by a huge variety of regulations.

And the Single European Act also for the first time allowed European citizens to live and work anywhere they chose in the Union.

Author of the scurrilous Sun headline, fun-loving Sun news editor Tom Petrie, also now deceased

In the United Kingdom, Delors became a figure of fun or plain hatred. The “red-top” tabloid newspapers, enjoying their final fun-filled, irresponsible  hayday, attacked him as a foreign “federalist” intent on eliminating the British pound. The Sun ‘s ribald 1990  front-page headline “Up yours, Delors” remains notorious, even today.

 In Austria, news of the imminent internal market raised other alarms. The Austrian economy was closely intertwined with the EC, especially Germany. If the advantages of the internal market were only to be reserved for member states, then Austria would ultimately have to join the EC. This failed in the 1960s due to Italian resistance due to the South Tyrol conflict. And the Soviet Union had rejected such accession as a violation of the state treaty and Austria’s law of permanent neutrality.

Delors interview with Lahodnsky (jeune)

But a new wind was now blowing in the Kremlin with Mikhail Gorbachev, who without demur gave Chancellor Franz Vranitzky’s government the green light for Austria’s application for membership in Brussels.

In July 1989, Foreign Minister Alois Mock handed the request over to his French counterpart Roland Dumas. Then suddenly the authorities in Brussels were the biggest obstacle, even before the accession negotiations began.

The fall of the Berlin Wall on November 9, 1989 led EFTA countries to apply to join the EC.

EEA waiting room today – another Delors brainwave

Jacques Delors drew up an alternative plan to full membership for Austria, Sweden, Finland, Norway and Switzerland, the “European Economic Area” (EEA).

These countries should be allowed to participate in the internal market, but with separate institutions and their own jurisdiction. Again, it was the Austrian government that first recognized the disadvantages: it had to comply with EU regulations without a say in these decisions. It was hardly acceptable for a democratic state. And the illusion of equal but separate institutions in the EEA was exposed by Switzerland’s objection to complying with EC Supreme Court rulings. The renegotiation of the EEA Treaty led to Switzerland’s withdrawal after a negative referendum for  fear of “foreign judges”.

The EEA therefore became a “European waiting room”, as it was derisively called. Its advantage: Efta countries had to adopt the basic rules of the EC  to participate in the EEA and the internal market. This saved time in later accession negotiations. To date, only Norway, Iceland, and Liechtenstein remain members. Delors ultimately gave up his opposition to the admission of EFTA states.

The end of Communism and the new freedom of countries in Central and Eastern Europe had also awakened the ambition of joiing desire there to join the EC, which was renamed the “European Union” in 1992. Delors was not just the architect of the internal market. His three-stage plan to create an economic and monetary union also paved the way for the euro. Delors died on December 27 in Paris at the age of 98. Hus daughter, Martine Aubry, became a Social-democratic politician and is mayor of Lille. His journalist son Jean-Paul  died of cancer in 1982.


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