Europe Dictionary: Subsidiarity

A great concern of many who doubt the European project is that the surrender of sovereignty in certain areas to Brussels creates a distance between the citizen and the policy process. The principle of subsidiarity goes some way to bridging this gap. Niamh Baker-Loughlin adds an entry to the PDU’s Europe Dictionary. 

Leading up to the creation of the Treaty of Maastricht, some observers expressed their concern that the emphasis on increased harmonisation of policy across Europe would lead to a ‘steamroller’ effect, which would integrate policy areas without taking into account their specific natures or without evaluating whether EU harmonisation was actually necessary in that area. Furthermore, the federal nature of several European states meant that some countries were worried that European integration would be incompatible with their national government structures.

The Maast'European Union Colours'richt Treaty, along with the subsequent Amsterdam and Lisbon treaties thus developed and  reinforced efforts to ensure that decisions are taken as close to the citizen as possible through their incorporation of the principle of subsidiarity. The basic premise of the principle, which can be found in article 5 of the Treaty of European Union, is that the European Union can take action or create legislation if, and only if, doing so proves more effective or beneficial than if action were to be taken at the national, regional, or local level.

This means that some competences are shared at the European level, while others remain under the control of the member state. It must be evaluated what distinguishes those competences best dealt with at the national level from those best dealt with at the supranational level.

It is clear that some areas of policy, such as monetary policy in the Eurozone, transcend the national interest to such an extent that they must be exclusive competences of the Union. However, some policy areas remain somewhat ambiguous, and the highly complex nature of some fields of legislation makes it difficult to know whether the national or supranational route will prove more effective. The responsibility falls to the national parliaments and the Committee of the Regions to flag up legislation that they feel breaches the principle of subsidiarity, and the Commission must be prepared to justify to the member state why they feel the legislative act is ‘better achieved at the Union level’, as outlined in Protocol 2 of the Lisbon Treaty.

Therefore, the principle of subsidiarity ensures that policy creation at the EU level remains only as distant from the citizen as is strictly necessary. Two distinct types of policy field have thus emerged in Europe, the national and the supranational, which allows for the creation of legislation to be undertaken in the most effective and efficient way possible.

Image: ‘European Union Colours’ courtesy of Tristam Sparks via Flickr, released under Creative Commons. 

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