20 years ago Jacques Delors, then President of the European Commission watched as the Berlin Wall fell. A privileged spectator of such historic change and a player in managing the consequences, he spoke to euronews about the days and weeks that changed the face of Europe. With two decades of hindsight, he told us what he feels about today’s Europe and the Europe of the future.
Fabien FARGE, euronews: We’re about to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. As president of the European Commission at the time, what was the atmosphere like in the days leading up to the event?
Jacques Delors: “The attention of all the members of the Commission was focused on how things were evolving. On Poland, which was already making progress towards democracy, the protests in East Germany, particularly Leipzig. And then of course those East Germans who wanted to get to Austria via Hungary. And that was made possible by the decision of Mr Gorbachov.”
euronews: Looking back to how the ninth of November unfolded. The wall falls. Where were you when you found out? What did you feel personally and what were your thoughts politically as president of the Commission?
Jacques Delors: “The event was a shock, we had to wait and see if it was going to happen peacefully. We didn’t know what might happen, in terms of the police’s reaction or that of the communist leadership. In short we paid close attention to what was going on. What was important were the weeks that followed. Chancellor Kohl and Gorbachov along with President Bush Snr. had stepped up communication to ensure we avoided incidents that could have left tens of thousands of people dead. As for us, we just wanted to see what was going to happen. The heads of state and government met in the Elysée palace as the EU was under a French presidency. And we had to start explaining that there was nothing to worry about, and there were those who were anxious about German reunification. We worked very hard in that respect. In April 1990 the whole of the European community had recognised Germany’s wish to reunify.”
euronews: As president of the Commission, what position did you adopt, what did you do in concrete terms?
Jacques Delors: “On the 12th of November I answered questions for German television by saying that East Germans in inverted commas, had their place in Europe. I was probably the first person to say this in Western Europe. And I said to Chancellor Kohl: “These East Germans don’t have your living standards or level of development so I’m ready to ask the EU that we share part of the burden.” And Chancellor Kohl replied “No. That would not be well received by my partners. First I have to convince them that a unified Germany would not change our policy, in particular towards Europe.” In short what we did was propose to politicians that regional development policies financed in the EU budget be extended to cover the former East German states. I went there myself and in July-August 1990, over two months, my team put together the programmes concerning these Eastern states and that was well received by everyone.”
euronews: Was there a real worry within the European Community at the time about reunification?
Jacques Delors: “It’s true that in other countries there were questions being asked like “Will a Germany run from Berlin be the same as the one run from Bonn when it comes to building Europe?”
euronews: What did you learn from this period?
Jacques Delors: “Firstly concerning the details of reunification, I found them risky, they cost alot in terms of German public spending. But I think Chancellor Kohl’s solution, especially regarding the East German currency, was the right one. Secondly I have always considered that Europe, a smaller Europe was not building itself for its own sake. It was doing it to meet the challenges of history and for me, it was a great source of happiness that we opened our arms to those countries that were just emerging from totalitarianism.”
euronews: With two decades of hindsight, do you regret any of the decisions you made?
Jacques Delors: “I would have preferred it if the European community had taken a bigger share of the burden but as I say the Chancellor refused that. And then, whilst being open to and happy about enlargement, I asked that our community, our shared house, prepared itself to take in ten more countries. But there unfortunately I failed. I proposed that at the 1992 European summit in Lisbon and the heads of state didn’t go with me. So I regret that we didn’t get our house in order and reflect on what a Europe of 25 or 27 would be like before making conclusions about enlargement.”
euronews: Now the EU has 27 members, perhaps more soon, and is on the verge of a new era with the Lisbon Treaty. What do you feel about this new chapter for Europe?
Jacques Delors: “I feel that if we want to live together, all 27 of us and in the future even more of us, the way the Union is governed needs to be up to the job. All the institutions have their role to play.”
euronews: Do you think the Lisbon Treaty is a step in the right direction
Jacques Delors: “No. I voted ‘Yes’ but I have real reservations about the creation of a permanent president of the European Council. Ideally, governments should reconsider the Commission for what it should be, the European Council, the summit of heads of state, should not interfere at all. We should just present it with a general overview of policy in a simple manner. Then it could work. But I repeat that knowing how to do something is just as important as knowing what to do.”