Leading Article: Delors stands tall among Europeans

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THE interview we publish on page 14 today reflects Jacques Delors' rare ability to combine concepts, practical politics and passion. Over his three terms as president of the European Commission, the former socialist French finance minister has proved himself one of the key figures in the history of the European Community. He has enormously enhanced the status of his job, and even succeeded in seizing the imagination of the British public.

For better, and occasionally for worse, Mr Delors has been the intellectual driving force of what - thanks in no small measure to him - is now a European Union of 12 states, scheduled to rise next January to 16. He has used his position first to conceptualise the next step forward, and then to advance it by arguing his case, modifying his own position where politically necessary in the light of the response.

It was he who so clearly grasped the need to push hard towards the single market, the Big Idea of his first presidency. True, that market was always a primary goal of the founding Treaty of Rome. But it had languished. He revived it and set a firm deadline for its completion. He, too, saw the importance of the beacon effect thereby created. Would-be members, such as the Norwegians, Finns, Swedes and Austrians, joined the European Economic Area before completing negotiations for full entry (subject only to public assent through referenda). He has been no less quick to appreciate the need to bring in the newly democratic East European countries as soon as practicable.

Inevitably his strengths have been offset by (sometimes related) weaknesses. Although he emerged, to Britain's relief, as the champion of subsidiarity, that was only after some excesses in the Commission's legislative programme for the single market.

Similarly, his eventual acceptance of the need for European business to become more flexible in order to compete with the US and Far East followed the over-prescriptive Social Chapter and his first-draft White Paper on employment, growth and competitiveness. In the latter field, Mr Delors has not always succeeded in shedding his Gallic sympathy for protectionism, as his role in the Gatt negotiations showed.

Perhaps, too, he has not always seen when and how deals can best be done. But on balance, and for all the complexity of his character, his strengths have far outweighed his weaknesses. It would be a grave error to appoint as his successor his antithesis: a mere fixer with no real sense of purpose. Whoever inherits this very big job, Mr Delors will be a hard act to follow.