French former socialist Minister Jacques Delors delivers his speech at the Trocadero in Paris, May 17, 2005
Skills set: Jacques Delors, former European Commission president © Reuters

Given recent depressing headlines about Greek financial meltdown, finger-pointing over refugee policy and a general sense of European drift, it is hard to remember that “Europe” was not long ago the most exciting political and societal project in the world.

At least, that is the way it appeared to me when, as a German management consultant in my early 30s, I returned to Europe from graduate studies and a nice consultancy job in the US because I believed Europe was entering an unprecedented and amazing age.

As I settled into an academic career in France (and later in Britain), the person who really inspired me was Jacques Delors, who was at the time president of the European Commission, a figure who, like him or loathe him, truly left a lasting mark on Europe and the world — and on me.

Long a figure of caricature in the Eurosceptic tabloid press of Britain, Delors served a decade as head of the commission. Starting his tenure in 1985, he helped usher in projects that culminated in the EU’s single market, a currency now shared by 19 countries, and carved out a role for “Europe” on the world stage that once would have been laughable. Visit China today and one senses an admiration for the EU not understood among many Europeans — it is, after all, a continent of nations that had been at war for centuries and now achieves a high level of integration.

That is not to say that Delors did not make mistakes. He made few efforts to reform the EU institutions, which now creak far more in an expanded union of 28 countries. And morale was poor among many EU staff because Delors’ aides ran the show in a bruising manner.

Moreover, Europe is hardly the united continent that Delors envisioned. Although he clearly recognised the incompleteness of the single currency, he trusted that the next generation of leaders would complete the project because economic pressures would leave them little choice — a miscalculation because those new leaders have not stepped up to their responsibility.

Yet such shortcomings and failures do not dim my admiration of Delors and that is because in politics, as in business, I believe it is important to strive to achieve what sceptics and other critics dismiss as impossible, even if the final outcome is disappointing relative to the vision. Vision and determination are inspirational and the outcome is often better than not having tried.

So, after a very enjoyable period in San Francisco, I chose to see the “European project” unfold before my own eyes because I believed then, as now, that what Delors sought to achieve was something unique. His vision was not a fully fledged “country” of joined jurisdictions, like the US, and not a mere “association” of neighbouring countries, but an in-between entity in which some powers are pooled and some are not, and in which the “centre” is powerful in some areas (such as trade) and weak in others (such as defence), but which despite its imperfections marks a remarkable historical step.

Perhaps it took a generation shaped by a war-torn period, including Delors (born in 1925), Helmut Kohl (1930), former German chancellor, and François Mitterrand (1916), the late French president, to enact sweeping agreements among nations aimed at preventing future bloodshed. Yet Delors displayed rare skill in shepherding negotiations that led to today’s EU: as described by biographer Charles Grant, one EU ambassador said that Delors showed an incredible knowledge of each country’s bottom line in negotiations and applied a mix of “rudeness, finesse, insight and diplomatic skill” in forging deals.

He could not complete the work by the time his tenure expired and had to leave to his successors the next step of integration — a “political union” fit for a currency union. But the younger generation has failed to see beyond the next election and their populations are becoming more and more insular. The EU project is begging for renewal.

The Delors legacy teaches us two key things. First: nothing amazing ever results without taking risks and having the drive and skill to achieve those amazing goals. Second: political projects, like business strategy, are never complete. Many businesses fail because they do not look beyond the current five-year cycle, or they coast complacently when effective leadership requires a wrenching gear-change in good times to prepare for a more challenging future.

Leadership of the sort shown by Delors a quarter of a century ago is sorely needed in Europe today. I hope there is a next generation of European politicians who are as inspired by him as I have been.

Christoph Loch is the dean of Cambridge Judge Business School at the University of Cambridge

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