Speech by Maxime Verhagen at the presentation of the Treaties of Nijmegen medal to Jacques Delors

Ladies and gentlemen,

What can I say to the man whom Helmut Kohl referred to as ‘the Soul of Europe’?

What can I say to the man who described himself as an ‘orphan of French politics’ but who, as the President of the European Commission, was just as well-known around the world as François Mitterrand?

What can I say to the man who Margaret Thatcher said was ‘one of the cleverest people in European politics’? And you know that coming from her, we can definitely take that as a compliment.

Mr Delors,

I congratulate you on receiving the Treaties of Nijmegen medal. It is a privilege to speak in your honour.

Charles Grant, who was The Economist ’s correspondent in Brussels for much of the decade that you presided over the European Commission, has argued that ‘no politician since the war has made a greater impact on Western Europe’ than you did. 1 That is no small feat.

If I had to sum up your contribution to the process of European integration in three words, they would be: market, solidarity and responsibility. You believed that the common market was the foundation of the European model, and you worked tirelessly to expand and perfect it. But in doing so, you also strove to promote social cohesion. You gave new meaning to the principle of solidarity, aiming to close the gap between richer and poorer parts of Europe. And along the way, you urged people to think responsibly about their future. You said, and I quote, ‘ 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’. That was not your vision of the European model, and I very much agree with those words.

In the ten years that you presided over the European Commission, your impact was immense. It was during your Presidency, in 1986, that the Single European Act was adopted. In your second term, you masterminded the creation of Economic and Monetary Union. And you oversaw the adoption of the Maastricht Treaty in 1992, including its Social Chapter, which you considered essential. Maastricht was not an easy Treaty to adopt, as we remember all too well in the Netherlands. As a Dutchman, and a Member of the European Parliament at the time, I have a vivid recollection of ‘Black Monday’, when the more federalist proposals were rejected.

This kind of process is never easy, and this time, too, there was hesitation – and even outright resistance – with regard to the direction in which European integration should be taken. Nevertheless, your ‘unidentified political object’ was given a clearer identity with the creation of the European Union, a Union of citizens and member states – otherwise known as ‘the House that Jacques built’.

‘Maastricht’ also paved the way for the introduction of the euro. The single currency, which is now used by some 329 million citizens in sixteen EU member states, is probably the most tangible aspect of your impressive legacy. It crowned your efforts to help shape the common market. It was a big and necessary step forward for the European Union and a great political adventure as well. Never before has there been a currency without a state. Monetary union presupposes political union, including economic union. For you, of course, this is just common sense. But the European project has obstinately followed its own course, as always.

Meanwhile, the euro has celebrated its tenth anniversary. And we can be proud of its success. But we must also admit that this success was made possible in part by the prevailing favourable economic conditions. As long as we had the wind in our sails, the criteria established under the Stability and Growth Pact sufficed to maintain countries’ budgetary discipline, under the political guidance of the Euro Group and with an authoritative European Central Bank. However, the current financial and economic crisis has also exposed our vulnerability. Yes, it is true that the euro prevented the freefall that other currencies underwent, which potentially put the eurozone in a better position to overcome the crisis. But at the same time, we have witnessed tensions in a monetary union that is so diverse. The crisis in Greece has forced us to acknowledge that there are imperfections that we have yet to deal with. Ensuring better supervision and stricter adherence to the rules is part of the answer.

We must continue to perfect our Economic and Monetary Union, so that we will be able to maintain our global currency and our economic weight in the world. This is all the more important because the balance of power in the world is shifting – and not in our favour. The European Union is not yet the geopolitical force it has the potential to be, given its economic position and its moral reach as a community of values. I am convinced that it is in Europe’s interest to join China and the United States as a major player on the international stage. We must aim to turn the G2 into the G3. That is certainly ambitious, but if there is one thing that you have taught us, Mr Delors, it is that we should not shy away from ambition, but welcome it with open arms.

For the EU to fulfil its potential as a global player, member states must commit to stronger – joint – external action. The Lisbon Treaty is in place. Now we must make sure that it starts working for us. We must ensure that the President of the European Council, Herman van Rompuy, and the High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Catherine Ashton, can indeed be the face of the EU in the wider world. That they can indeed speak for all the member states with one voice. And that the EU’s new diplomatic arm, the European External Action Service, is a success. To achieve this, member states must exercise restraint and get behind the banner of the EU, instead of always wanting to see their own flags flying. It might sound as if by doing this we risk becoming invisible, but the opposite is true: by speaking with one voice we will increase our relative weight.

Of course, Mr Delors, you more than anyone have known all this for a long time. You more than anyone have stood for the principle of European unity and concerted action. And you were able to make it work, too. To turn national interests into common interests. Because that is, first and foremost, what the European Union is: a community based on shared values and shared interests.

And in the end it is this principle which should increase public support for Europe: it should become apparent that unity and concerted action work to citizens’ advantage. In your lifetime, you have never hesitated to make the connection between larger ideals and the fate of real people; to give abstractions a human face. That, too, is something that I will take from you: people should not feel that they are, as you put it, ‘nothing but a variable to be adjusted’. You also said, and I quote, ‘Many Europeans feel lost in this world, in which they believe that neither they nor their leaders are in control of events that impact on their lives. They need their leaders to close this enormous gap that they find so maddening. They must be able to understand the world as it transforms itself and to voice their aspirations and needs…The general public want to be informed about the changes it must make in this world and wants to have the resources to cope with these changes.’ I agree: ‘La question ce n’est pas de leur demander plus, c’est de leur proposer des innovations qui s’imposent à eux.’ 2

That is the leadership you have shown us; that is the example you have given us; that is the inspiration we can draw from you.

Thank you.

1 Charles Grant, Inside the House that Jacques Built , London, 1994
2 Jacques Delors and Marcel Gauchet, ‘Comment réenchanter l’Europe?’, Libération , 26 June 2009