Viscount Davignon

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Viscount Davignon

Viscount Davignon (born 1932) was an important architect of European integration and unity as a member and later vice-president of the Commission of the European Communities.

Viscount Etienne Davignon was born in Budapest (Hungary) on October 4, 1932, to a Belgian family of professional diplomats. His father had been a distinguished Belgian ambassador and his grandfather had been minister for foreign affairs (as a reward for his good services, he had been raised to the rank of nobility in 1916 by the King of Belgium).

Davignon studied law at the Catholic University of Louvain and thereafter joined the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 1959 where he soon got involved in Belgium's most delicate post-war diplomatic action: negotiating a satisfactory way out of the turmoil in Africa surrounding the granting of independence to what had been the Belgian Congo. In 1961 he was nominated to serve in the office of the Foreign Minister Paul-Henri Spaak, who became the mentor and a close friend of the young diplomat. Davignon served as head of office from 1964 until 1969, remaining at this post under the next foreign minister.

A first major achievement in his career as an architect of European unity was realized when he became director general of the political department of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs from 1969 until 1976. He proposed the creation of a committee of all directors general of the European Communities (currently called the European Union), which then consisted of only six member countries. He successfully defended the idea of an institutionalized mechanism to coordinate the foreign policies of these countries. It was the first committee created through the European Communities (E.C.) that aimed directly at increasing the political cooperation of the members, beside the already strongly institutionalized economic, commercial, and industrial cooperation. Davignon presided over this committee from 1974 until 1975, and his influence over it went so far that the committee carried his name. Davignon is rightly said to be one of the "founding fathers" of political cooperation in the European Communities.

Appointment to Tackle Oil Crisis

In November 1974 he was appointed chairman of the governing board of the international Energy Agency created in response to the first world-wide oil crisis. He became one of the 13 commissioners of the European Economic Communities in December 1976. This meant that he had to act independently, in the interest of the E.C. as a whole and not as a Belgian representative anymore. During his first mandate (four years) at the commission he had responsibility for internal markets and industries. During his second mandate, from 1981 to 1985, Viscount Davignon also was chosen as one of the five vice-presidents of the commission, responsible for industry, energy, and research policies.

Decisions at the commission are collegial, and it is often hard to know whose product they are. Those related to Davignon's field of competence bear the distinctive mark of his influence and conceptions. His middle-of-the-road, pragmatic approach to solving the problems of Europe's traditional industrial sectors proved relatively successful, given the complex circumstances. He negotiated international agreements on textiles, steel, and shipyards to give European industry the indispensable breathing space it needed to reshape and adapt itself to prevailing world standards of competition. For example, his supervision of the steel industries within the European Communities resulted in the implementation of an anti-crisis plan also called "Plan Davignon." It was a response to protectionist moves by member countries who tried to protect their labor intensive steel industries in decline. The plan succeeded in preserving the openness of the European market for members as well as non-members of the European Communities. Other merits of Davignon's plan were that the difficult climate of solidarity among steel producers was maintained and that future government subsidies to the steel industry had to be submitted for approval by the commission. Similar plans were elaborated to save and restructure the also declining textile industry and the shipyards.

Took on Trade Disputes

Trade disputes between the European Communities and the United States or Japan were frequent after the beginning of the world recession of the 1970s. Davignon took the lead in many of them, especially in settling the U.S.-E.C. steel dispute in 1982.

Davignon can also be credited for drawing up a wider strategy for encouraging the burgeoning high technology industries within the E.C. Common European standards had to be found in such new fields as computer technologies and telecommunications. Otherwise, a myriad of regulations would result in a sterile competition and too small internal markets would impede competition with products from the United States or Japan.

Davignon was also in charge of developing a common energy policy. The aim was to reduce energy consumption through more economic use of it. But declining oil prices and private initiatives made the policies obsolete. Though, still in the energy sector, Davignon insisted on the implementation of the Joint European Torus (JET) project, a research project to produce energy by nuclear fusion (instead of the classical fission). European governments have joined forces to build one of the most powerful experimental energy installations in the world.

After his second mandate at the commission of the European Communities, Davignon became a member of the governing board of the SociétéGénérale de Belgique (SGB), Belgium's leading holding company and became chairman of the company in April 1989. SGB was known, half affectionately, half mockingly as La Vieille Dame (the old lady), a comment on SGB's "stuffy, old-fashioned traditions and its age." Davignon was also a partner at Kissinger Associates, Inc., a consulting office based in Washington, D.C.

In May 1991, Davignon became chairman of the Association for the Monetary Union of Europe. The Association was founded in 1987 by European industrialists who agreed on the objectives of monetary union and a single currency for the success of the single European market. Speaking on the need for a unified Europe, Davignon remarked, "More and more issues create problems when they don't get Europe-wide solutions. National frameworks don't work anymore."

Further Reading

Little has been written on Davignon, and he himself published little. An excellent article by him is: "Notre avenir dans l'Europe" in Réalités et perspectives (1985, Banque Générale du Luxembourg). On political cooperation, see Philippe de Schoutheete, La coopération politique européenne, preface by Davignon, edited by Fernand Nathan (Paris, 1980). Davignon's papers are freely available at European Files and Documentations, Documentation Service, Bur. R/1 D, SDM8, Rue de la Loi, 200, B-1049 Brussels, Belgium. □