Charles Grant talks to Jacques Delors about Europe and what he plans to do with the rest of his lifeby Charles Grant / October 20, 1995 / Leave a comment
As president of the European Commission, Jacques Delors was a workaholic who drove his colleagues as hard as he drove himself. Peter Sutherland, the former commissioner, found Delors as tense as a “coiled spring.” Since Delors left the commission last January his spring has begun to unwind. He recently took his first holiday in 15 years and now looks much younger than he did during his last years in Brussels. Delors and his wife Marie-to whom he is extremely close-live in a modest flat on the Rue St Jacques, on Paris’s Left Bank.
Despite having refused to run for the French presidency, Delors remains the most popular politician in France. So far as he is concerned, he has not retired. In his first extended interview since leaving office, he stresses his need to remain useful. Surrounded by books on economics and sociology, Delors is still the bustling autodidact who believes that ideas can change the world. His thoughts, often incomplete, tend to run with intuitive leaps.
One of Delors’ abiding concerns is that the European model of society is under threat-not only from economic liberals, but also from those on the left who ignore personal responsibility. Delors has defined the European model thus: “It is different from the Japanese model in that it doesn’t exert so much pressure on the individual, and allows a bit more space for self-fulfillment. But society is more present than it is in the US. The Europeans have always found a balance between the individual and society. That goes back to the base of their civilisation: Christianity, Roman law, the Greek civitas, and more recently, social democracy.”
For Delors, the European model has a strong ethical base. His faith in it stems from “personalism,” a philosophy of Christian communitarianism which has inspired him since the 1950s. Emmanuel Mounier, the Catholic philosopher who developed personalism, remains Delors’s intellectual godfather. Personalists seek a middle way between communism, which denies the individual, and liberalism, which denies the community.
Charles Grant, author of Delors: Inside the House that Jacques Built, interviewed Delors in his Paris flat.
Q Now that you have left the European Commission, do you hope to influence European Union politics discreetly, from behind the scenes, as Jean Monnet did in his later years?
A Yes, though these days you can’t just fix things with a quick meeting of ministers, party leaders and trade unionists, like Monnet did. I remain in contact with several heads of government. I even had discussions about setting up a foundation with Chancellor Helmut Kohl, but it didn’t work, I don’t know why. I am being careful not to disperse my energies, so that, when the right moment comes, I can intervene by putting the right question. My problem is how to find the best way of being useful. I reflect a lot on the European model, and how it is different from America and Japan.
Q The opinion polls said that you would have won the French presidency. So why did you not run for it?
A I thought that I wouldn’t have been able to get my ideas implemented. It wasn’t simply about whether I could win. The problem was, what would I have done if I had won? Is the point of getting to the Elys?e to say, ‘hey, I’ve made it’? I had to consider the state the Socialist party was in, both electorally and in terms of its programme. Having spent a long period in power, it needed more time in opposition to regenerate. My presidential victory, if it had happened, would have been artificial in relation to the Socialist party. It may be that on my deathbed, I will come to regret my decision, but for the moment, I live at peace with it.
Q You mentioned personal reasons for not running.
A I had to think whether, after 50 years of hard slog, I was still lucid and fresh enough for the job. Being president of France involves tiring work: you have to worry about petty things like etiquette and respecting everyone’s sensibilities. Contrary to what people say, my wife never turned me away from the presidency. She told me to reflect on it and do what I wanted. And it was nothing to do with not wanting to spoil the political career of my daughter [Martine Aubry]. Having taken my decision not to run, I campaigned flat out for Lionel Jospin. Now it’s up to him to reconstruct the Socialist party, while I carry out my work on the European model and ask whether socialism still has meaning.
Q At the end of 1993, the European Commission published a white paper on “Jobs, Competitiveness, Employment,” much of which you wrote yourself. The central message was that governments had to liberalise labour markets if the European model was to survive. The white paper argued that some EU countries should allow employers to sack workers more easily, and that others should cut unemployment benefits, taxes on low incomes and minimum wages. Do you really think that if governments implemented your white paper-and some of them have followed some of its prescriptions-the European model could compete successfully against rivals which seem to create jobs more easily?
A Yes, the European model remains superior to that of America and Japan. The European model is, first, a social and economic system founded on the role of the market, for no computer in the world can process information better than the market. Second, we have a state which intervenes, regulates, and fills the gaps left by the market. The third element is the role of professional bodies and trade unions, the “social partners,” which help to make people more responsible. These days there are not enough of such intermediary groups, between the state and the individual, with the result that political leaders are often unduly guided by opinion polls.
These three elements have to, on the one hand, produce enough competitiveness to maintain the standard of living and to prevent unemployment from rising-and people should work, because it’s a means of socialising them; and, on the other, provide citizens with cover against the risks of sickness, poverty in old age and so on. Leave to one side the question of the redistribution of wealth, which is less essential: you can favour a European model which is strongly redistributive, or one that is less so.
Q What has to be done in order to preserve this model?
A We have to struggle against the conservatives from all sides, not only the right-wingers, but also the left-wing conservatives who don’t want to change anything. The question is, how do we reconcile standards of living and equity? This desire for equity must not lead to an excess of welfare, where nobody is responsible for anything. The problem of how we finance the welfare state should not obscure a separate issue: if each person thinks he has an inalienable right to welfare, no matter what happens to the world, that’s not equity, it’s just creating a society where you can’t ask anything of people.
For me, socialism has always been about liberty and solidarity, but also about responsibility. That comes from my personalism. I would not be opposed to devising a new system of pensions, in which one part was based on collective provision, but which also gave incentives for people to take out an additional, personal plan. The problem with a purely collective system is not only that it requires economic growth, and the right sort of demographic trends, but that it prevents people thinking about their futures in a responsible way.
The same goes for the provision of other public goods. Should everything be free? Is it right, that, as in France, skiers pay no more towards their healthcare than those who avoid risky sports, or that those who visit four doctors about the same problem pay no more than those who visit one?
Q You’re keen on personal responsibility, but so are many Americans. So what distinguishes the model of society you want from that in America?
A Cinema explains American society. It’s like a Western, with good guys and bad guys, where the weak don’t have a place. Fundamentally, American society is composed of individuals who don’t go out of their way to do each other favours. Of course, there are charitable works, but look at the way American companies sack people, or the way two executives fight each other for a promotion. It’s an immigrant society, in which families have undergone tremendous hardship in order to fight for their place. So as well as being a dynamic society, it’s an unpitying one. Clinton and Gore told me that they were elected in order to bring some compassion to this society. But they have not managed to change much.
Q Economic liberals would say, this American model may be brutal, but it creates jobs.
A But such precarious jobs! You can do a badly-paid, dull job and be sacked without any notice. Even in Britain, the trade unions tell me that employment contracts have less protection than in the past. I know it works both ways: I hear of people in the City who tell their firm, I’m leaving you next week because I’ve found a better job elsewhere. But is a system which lacks a basic level of stability a good one? If this anarchy leads to the jungle, everyone will be worse off. So we need a minimum set of rules.
Q Despite their loss of members, European trade unions remain stronger than those in America. Ever since the 1950s, when you ran the research department of the Conf?d?ration Fran?aise des Travailleurs Chr?tiens, you’ve worked hard, in France and in Brussels, to boost the public role of trade unions. You’re an unabashed corporatist. But are the unions not facing inevitable decline?
A No. The unions may continue to decline, but if they do, it’ll be their fault. History has not condemned this method of collective action. They have to organise themselves better. The unions still have a job to do, representing their members’ interests to governments and parliaments. And I think collective agreements still have a role, alongside markets and laws. If you don’t have collective agreements between unions and employers, governments have to legislate more.
Q When you worked for Jacques Chaban-Delmas’ Gaullist government, in the early 1970s, you sponsored a collective agreement between employers and unions on the right to life-long training, which the government then turned into law. You have tried to establish a similar mechanism at the European level, encouraging employers and unions to negotiate conventions which could then become legally-binding. But not much has come of that.
A Unice and Etuc [the European confederations of employers and trade unions, respectively] tried to negotiate a convention on consultative workers’ councils in trans-European companies, but could not agree [because of opposition from Britain’s CBI]. So the commission drafted a directive which was adopted by the countries which had not opted out of the social chapter. Have you noticed how many of the multinationals creating these councils have invited British workers to join, despite John Major’s opt-out? They realise that it’s in their interests to have all nationalities represented on these councils, where managers can explain what their plans are. Now Unice and Etuc are negotiating on the question of parental leave, and they seem likely to reach an agreement, sparing us the need to legislate. So I think these conventions will work.
Q Some union activists fear that works councils reduce the power of unions.
A Any union that can’t accept workers choosing their own representatives through universal franchise is finished.
Q One trait of the European model is the size of the state. Can European economies compete effectively if, as in most west European countries, the state continues to take about 45 per cent of GDP in taxation, compared with about 30 per cent in the United States and Japan?
A Without that kind of state, the economic crises that we’ve had since the Second World War would have been as bad as those of the 1930s. The state is the principal means of cushioning the blows of economic recession. But one can go too far. Swedish social democracy used to be my ideal model, yet by the 1980s their state had started to take 56 per cent of national income. Dropping from 45 per cent to 20 per cent would be ridiculous, but there’s an important distinction between 45 per cent and 55 per cent. The Swedes did not see that some people would come to regard all that welfare as a right, and thus become less responsible. Since the 1980s I’ve considered Germany a better model of social democracy.
Q Do you know Frank Field, the British MP who chairs the House of Commons’ select committee on social security, and who, like you, is a Christian concerned about responsibility? He says that benefits should be universal, to stop fraud, and that the state should pass social insurance to other bodies.
A I have not met him, but his ideas are a natural reaction to what has been going on in Britain and other countries. The European model is in danger if we obliterate the principle of personal responsibility. If social democrats are not capable of restructuring the welfare system, they’ll be defeated by the disciples of Hayek, whose system-although harsh and unpitying-at least allows for responsibility.
The driving force behind the liberal counter-offensive in Europe has been a reaction against irresponsibility. Mrs Thatcher told me how, when her father was working all hours of the day and night in his grocery shop, she was revolted by strikes and by “establishment” business chiefs who went home at five o’clock. I agreed with her on that point.
Q You discussed the European model with her?
A She told me she did not recognise its existence. She said to me during one EU summit, “What does this phrase ‘social partners’ mean? I don’t know it. For me there are only individuals.”
Q Are you sure that the European model of society includes Britain?
A Britain does follow the European model, in its foundations-though obviously the Thatcherites reject it. I’ve always been impressed by how the British like to resolve problems at the grass-roots. You have youth workers and community workers, and some Britons-for instance Sir Leon Brittan’s wife-work tremendously hard for charities. There’s a communitarian current in the history of the Labour party, that of Robert Owen and GDH Cole. I’m confident that Tony Blair is trying to be faithful to this communitarian current.
Q Stephen Dorrell, Britain’s health minister, said recently: “There is no need to choose between rampant welfarism and American-style capitalism, there is a middle way.” Kenneth Clarke, the British Chancellor, has said something similar. Aren’t they signing up for your European model?
A Yes, there’s always been that tendency in the Conservative party, but it’s been submerged by the arguments on Europe. Even John Major would share such sentiments, he has compassion. But he dare not say such things in public.
Q Your emphasis on community and personal responsibility has much in common with some of the things that Tony Blair and the communitarian Amitai Etzioni say.
A Newsweek recently ran a recent feature on the future of socialism, saying that Blair, [Rudolf] Scharping and myself were communitarians. In fact in France we can’t use that word, for it has Petainist connotations. When I talk to Scharping and Blair I realise that my philosophy is close to them. We think that people must be responsible, in the communities where they belong. We want to put back some soul into socialism, and we think there’s too much state.
Q Like Etzioni, you have proposed giving parents-men as well as women-better incentives to stay at home with their children. And like Etzioni you think that youths should perform a year of community service, when they leave school. But surely there are very few practical policies by which a national government can promote communities?
A Your criticism would be justified if anyone else were coming up with answers. For the past ten years we’ve seen the growing difficulties of the social democratic model, and we’ve seen the vogue for Thatcherite liberalism passing. All governments, whether left or right, have become totally pragmatic. No one on the left or right has yet come up with a new theory of state and society.
Liberals believe in a “suppletive state,” which intervenes only to remedy a deficiency. Socialists have traditionally wanted a centralising state which managed healthcare, pensions and so on. In practice liberals have been obliged to go beyond the suppletive state, because the European model is there and it exists, while socialists have had to concede that the state has done too much. Between the suppletive state and the centralising state there is, for me, the subsidiary state. One which intervenes only when absolutely necessary, and which doesn’t intervene to diminish individual responsibility.
Q Where, if anywhere, does such a subsidiary state exist?.
A I think Germany comes closest to it.
Q What policies should a subsidiary state pursue?
A A subsidiary state should create a social security system that makes people more responsible. If you want the right to something you should have to work for it. The pension system should be based on the contributions that people make. One should not confuse social insurance with the problem of redistribution.
For people who want to work, but cannot, the subsidiary state should create a universal minimum income. But that should not be added to the systems which already exist-as has happened with France’s revenu minimum d’insertion, introduced by the Rocard government-or the system becomes over-complex and illogical, and encourages sloth… So when you bring in the universal minimum income you should scrap a lot of other sorts of social assistance. Pragmatism has led us towards an enormously complex system, which is like a basket full of holes. It’s a racket: some needy people slip through, while others do very nicely. They use the system craftily and don’t do their duty to others in society.
Q A couple of years ago, you were very pessimistic about the future of the EU. Are you less so now?
A On most of the problems which bedevilled us in 1992 and 1993, we’ve regained our ground: we have monetary stability, the economic recession is over, even the imperfections of the Maastricht treaty can be tackled. But the fact that the EU has not been able to do anything about former Yugoslavia, with its ethnic cleansing and ideology of death, has dealt a terrible blow to the construction of Europe.
Q The commission remains under heavy attack, not only from British Conservatives but also from Jacques Chirac.
A Yes, but no one dares to propose throwing out the institutional mechanisms which we have. No one’s got any better suggestions. So in fact the system has become much more solid than it was when I went to Brussels in 1985. Look at Chirac: despite some in his party criticising the franc fort, he says EMU is a necessity.
Q What do you think of Jacques Santer, your successor as commission president?
A For the time being I’d say he’s doing a good job, in his own style. The test will come if, one day, the commission has to stand up and take difficult positions that are liable to be criticised from all sides. But it seems he’s prepared to push hard on important matters that he knows well, like monetary union.
Q Some criticise Santer for not being strong enough to stand up to the big countries. But perhaps after ten years of Delors, it might suit the commission to have a low-key leader for a while. Any Eurosceptic who tried to paint an amiable, modest fellow like Santer as a tyrannical beast of Brussels would look ridiculous.
A Yes, one could not continue with someone like me, who was always fighting the heads of government at summits. Frankly we needed a change of style.