Whatever Happened to Subsidiarity (revisited)?

26 July, 2009

Ireland has benefited greatly from membership of the EU, and hopefully it will continue to do so as a full and commited member.  However, to be deeply involved in and to respect an institution of which one is a member does not mean that one suspends one’s critical facilities or simply stands back when one believes that the instution is heading in the wrong direction with its policies.

This is what has been happening for many years with the EU, which has been engaged in a centralisation of power and legislative capacity towards its own institutions at the expense of lawmakers and citizens in individual member states.  What is most difficult to cope with is that there does not seem to be a coherent philosophy which underpins this drift towards the centre; rather there is just an inexorable process which is driven mainly by the self-interest of the Commission, the Parliament and the European Court of Justice.   A recent report by the Institute of Economic Affairs has an excellent overview of this topic.

Thre are many areas of law-making which can undeniably be more effectively and coherently implemented at the EU level, but at present there is no simple way ensuring that the principle of Subsidiarity is adhered to (and the related proposals in the Lisbon Treaty are fairly toothless).  We have given the EU (or it has taken) an extremely broad canvas on which to set out its wishes and principles, one which goes way beyond the matters of economics and trade to which we originally signed up to.   Look at the sample quotations below, and think about whether the subject matters really should be decided in Brussels.

In citing the following examples, I am making no statement as to whether or not I think the effect of proposed legislation is good or bad (in fact it is mainly good); only that I think national legislatures should be responsible for enacting it (or not enacting it).  These examples are a small number of cases which I have stumbled across in recent years without any actual trawl of the legislation – there are probably hundreds of similar or better examples.

“Families across Europe will no longer be allowed to exclude close family members – no matter how undeserving – from their wills if proposals currently before the European Parliament are accepted.”

“Trading in dog and cat fur is to be banned in Europe”

“It may soon be compulsory for cars to have daytime running lights in all EU member states.”

“The European Union pledged to discuss calls for a Europe-wide ban on Nazi insignia”

“The European Commission is consulting workers and employers on how best to tackle the growing problem of musculoskeletal disorders (MSD)”

“The European Commission is planning to introduce a list of common sanctions against retailers selling violent video games to children”

“The European Commission threatened court action against 10 nations for failing to implement legislation to protect zoo animals in accordance with Council Directive 1999/22/EC”

“The Draft Fifth Motor Insurance Directive includes a proposal by the Commission that, in accidents involving pedestrians or cyclists and motor vehicles, the pedestrians/cyclists should be covered by the compulsory insurance of the motor vehicle.”

And so on. 

I’m not at all sure that all the above suggestions ever saw the light of day (or not yet at least); but can one really look at these examples without concluding that the Commission sees no effective boundaries as regards the areas within which they wish to have legislative competence? 

In the United States, there is at least a reasonably well developed jurisprudence, based on a written constitution, which patrols the border between state and federal powers.  In the EU, it is all one-way traffic, and the Commission clings, without the possibility of challenge, to any area of power it has seized.  In the absense of clear ground rules, it is with a heavy heart that many voters will sign up to the Lisbon Treaty and thereby give the EU a greater facility for law-making in its ever-widening area of claimed competence.

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One Response to “Whatever Happened to Subsidiarity (revisited)?”


  1. […] September, 2010 I have commented before (for instance here, and here) on how the EU pays lip service to the principle of subsidiarity, while in practice it […]


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