When the European Union speaks on international trade, the rest of the world adjusts its positions. It is the one subject on which the Union speaks with a single voice and the one arena of international relations wherein it has real power. The eu derives its leverage in this area from the fact that it is the world’s biggest single market—a result of the changes it implemented after the summer of 1984. A sweeping advance in trade liberalization for both goods and invisibles, within the common market itself and with the world outside its frontiers, has established the eu with a greater share of world trade by value than the usa (if trade between eu member states is included). Increasing freedom of movement for workers, work-seekers and professional experts, together with relative freedom of capital flows—although far less, for people and capital, than inside the usa—have all contributed to this outcome. The establishment of a common currency for all but three of the member-states has created a firmer buttressing for these developments. The myth that it was possible to travel across mid-nineteenth-century Europe with only one currency is now becoming close to reality.

The combined effect of these changes was probably one of the primary causes of the increase in incomes and prosperity throughout most of the common market over the last twenty years. Their architect and inspirer was Jacques Delors, an official of the Bank of France turned politician, who became president of the European Commission in 1984, at the age of fifty-nine. When his three terms of office in Brussels finally ended in 1995, Delors turned down an invitation to be the Socialist Party candidate in the French presidential elections of that year, despite the indications of opinion polls that he would be elected. Delors will surely be judged the most able president the European Commission has had, despite attempts by federalist scholars to bestow that accolade on the first incumbent, the rigid, dogmatically ideological and politically insensitive Walter Hallstein. Nevertheless, the uppermost emotion conveyed by his memoirs is regret that the changes which he forced through did not succeed in bringing about the regime of social justice for which he had laboured throughout his working life, and which he hoped would be an integral aspect of the new Europe.

Delors’s political manhood coincided with France’s post-war reconstruction. Born in 1925, he interrupted his further education to follow in his father’s footsteps as a Bank of France official. It was perhaps the nearest thing to his desire to work in the post-war planning Commissariat and it was, indeed, to prove to be one way into that small but influential circle. As a middle-ranking Bank official, it was Delors’s activities as a trade unionist in the Confederation of Christian Workers (cftc) that led to his recruitment to the elite policy discussion group, the Economic and Social Council. In 1962, at the request of Jacques Chaban-Delmas, Delors was appointed as social policy adviser to Pierre Massé, the head of the Commissariat Général du Plan. He served as an adviser on social and then economic affairs to Chaban-Delmas when the latter became prime minister (1969–72). ‘A New Society’ was the slogan that had accompanied Chaban-Delmas’s election campaign. That France’s post-war reconstruction should include social change, engineered by government effort, as well as economic development was Delors’s personal belief. That something similar, engineered by the new European institutions, should be the outcome of Europe’s reconstruction, became his ambition. Although his career was to be one of international recognition and official triumph, his hopes for social justice were to be disappointed.

For this disappointment there were several reasons. One was the power structure of the national political parties, in which Delors held no secure base. His initial interest in the French version of a Christian Democratic Party, the mrp, lasted less than a year. Inside the European Community institutions it was the national parties that made the big decisions. For a combination of economic and political reasons the French Socialists, once in power, supported the Single European Act, the main instrument of European trade liberalization. But they also accepted that freer trade would be accompanied by the privatization of state-sector management, although this had no necessary inherent connexion to trade liberalization or to the freer movement of factors of production. Delors, for his part, would have preferred the Single European Act to have been accompanied by a policy which tempered the wind to those workers most affected by the loss of protectionist institutions.

One outcome of not providing such transitory protection was that trade unions, which Delors saw as an inherent aspect of a more just society, would be transformed into minor consultative institutions, largely regarded as barriers to productivity improvement. Another consequence was that working hours would increase in most eu countries—even in France, where the shorter working week had been an important political cause since the 1930s. Furthermore, those state-sector enterprises which Delors and his fellow planners of the 1950s and 1960s had seen as an indispensable part of the national infrastructure were now delegated to private agencies, whose losses had to be paid by taxpayers with no effective control over the services provided nor over the prices set for them.

All these trends were part of the ideology of the New Right, its hand enormously strengthened by the collapse of the Soviet bloc. It was above all in the central European countries, now member-states of the European Union or candidates to become so, that these changes were held to represent liberty. Debates in western Europe over the precise requirements of trade liberalization risked irrelevance, in face of such huge political changes in the East. Margaret Thatcher can legitimately claim as much credit for the Single European Act as Jacques Delors. The timing of Delors’s appointment as President of the European Commission was not propitious for his views on social policy. The hard political facts of life within the European Community were that the ideology of the New Right was seen as ‘freedom’ by the former Soviet bloc. These facts were to be cruelly brought home to Delors during his time in Brussels.

But if the ideology of the radical Right was triumphant, what was the contribution of the Left? Had Delors any countervailing programme that could have brought comparable economic advance and income gain to Europe, but with the greater degree of social justice for which he strove? The question is inseparable from that of the role of parties and political power, even if it is also one about individual aspirations and ideological choices. Where did Delors stand in the mainstream of French political activity?