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Jacques Delors and the road to Brexit

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Former President of the European Commission Jacques Delors, who has died at the age of 98, is rightly remembered as a true architect of European integration. He even succeeded for a time in tackling the project’s biggest flaw, British Euroscepticism. First, he got Margaret Thatcher to embrace the Single Market, then won over the UK’s trade unions, writes Political Editor Nick Powell.

In March 1983, the Paris suburb of Clichy hosted the annual rugby match against its British twin-town of Merthyr Tydfil, held on the morning of France’s game against Wales in the Five Nations. The Mayor of Merthyr sat on a bench next to his French counterpart, who disappeared straight after kick-off and did not return until it was time to present the trophies.

The Mayor of Clichy told his somewhat offended guest that he had been on the telephone, trying to resolve his country’s financial crisis. In France, it was perfectly normal for Jacques Delors to secure his local power base by serving as mayor when he was also President Mitterrand’s Finance Minister.

The purely local politician from Wales was dumbfounded but it was not to be the last time that Jacques Delors would come up against the difficulties caused by dealing with the very different British political culture. Not that he didn’t try, with more success than most.

President of the European Commission for 10 years (1985-1995), he won over the UK’s notoriously Euro-sceptic trade unions with his speech to their 1988 Congress. He promised them a “social Europe” instead of the capitalists’ club they feared. Unfortunately, the direct result was Margaret Thatcher’s Bruges speech two weeks later rejecting the very idea. It was to become the sacred text of the British Conservative Party’s Euroscepticism.

It still seemed like a good long-term bet at the time. Labour were apparently heading for government, so securing the support of the British left was worth any short-term friction with a Prime Minister on her way out, although she had been a valuable ally in driving the creation of the European Single Market.

Jacques Delors had his eye on an even bigger prize, the creation of Europe’s single currency. The financial crisis that had dragged him away from the rugby in Clichy brought an end to the expansionist financial policy of the Fifth Republic’s first socialist government. The growing strength of the US dollar forced Mitterrand and Delors to embrace the franc fort but also encouraged the belief that persuading European countries, most especially Germany, to share their currency was the only route to truly stable money.

In the UK a similar financial crisis occurred nearly ten years later and ended the pound’s brief membership of the European Exchange Rate Mechanism. The disastrous exit from the ERM fuelled hostility to the Maastricht Treaty on the right of British politics and the same sorry saga meant that when Labour came to power under Tony Blair, it did no more than toy with the idea of joining the Euro.

By 2012, with the freedom of retirement, Jacques Delors was wonderful if Britain might have to swap full membership of the EU for a free trade agreement if it could not support greater European integration. Nevertheless, during the 2016 Brexit referendum campaign, he tried to quash the rumour that would prefer that the UK voted to leave.

“I consider the UK’s participation in the European Union to be a positive element for both the British and the Union”, he insisted. In his time, he had done more than most at the top of European politics to get that truth more widely recognised and valued.

Nick Powell

EU Briefs publie des articles provenant de diverses sources extérieures qui expriment un large éventail de points de vue. Les positions prises dans ces articles ne sont pas nécessairement celles d'EU Briefs.

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