Ideas on Europe

The principle of subsidiarity, 30 years later

The principle of subsidiarity, 30 years later

For our weekly ‘Ideas on Europe’ editorial by UACES, the University Association for European Studies, we welcome Georgiana Ciceo, from Babeș-Bolyai University, in Romania. Bonjour, Georgiana!

30 years ago, the Maastricht Treaty anchored the principle of subsidiarity in the functioning of the European Union. Difficult to pronounce, and also difficult to understand for many citizens. Can you remind us of its origins and meaning?

You may be surprised, but the principle of subsidiarity actually received a first consecration from the Catholic Church in 1891, then again in 1931, in the Encyclical ‘Quadragesimo Anno’, entitled ‘On the Reconstruction of the Social Order’.

Established as a principle governing the distribution of competences between a ‘higher association’ and ‘lesser and subordinate organizations’, the principle of subsidiarity attempts to address the question of what lawyers call ‘the appropriate locus of political and legal authority’ in a multi-layered system of governance.

And when did the EU pick it up, and for what purpose?

The first expression of subsidiarity in the EU treaties surfaced in the Single European Act of 1986, in relation to environmental policy.

It was seen as a response to the centralizing tendencies that emerged in the context of the Maastricht Treaty negotiations. On the one hand, Member States were concerned about the seemingly endless growth of the Union's powers. And on the other hand, regions became alarmed that centralist backsliding could lead to a diminution of their own powers.

As a result, the principle of subsidiarity was codified in Article 3b of the Maastricht Treaty, accompanied by the principle of conferred powers and the principle of proportionality, which were supposed to establish not just common principles for action, but also rules for less intrusive EU governance.

But is it actually a solution to a problem?

In some well-known federalist systems, as in Germany or Switzerland, it is expressly stated in the constitutions, as a safeguard against centralizing tendencies.

In the EU, it has become associated with the concept of ‘doing less more efficiently’ or ‘being big on big things and small on small things.’ Expressed along these lines, it eventually took the form of an alternative scenario in the debate over Europe's future.

You’re speaking of the five scenarios drawn up by the former Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker ?

Absoutely. The ones from the White Paper on the Future of Europe in early 2017, only six years ago. Juncker was concerned that for many Europeans, the Union was, I quote, ‘either too distant or too interfering in their day-to-day lives’.

But there are other interest groups who refer to the same idea. Remember ‘the Frugal Four’? This informal grouping of fiscally conservative Member States was opposed to higher budget contributions and to the idea of taking mutualized debts within the EU.

And there is the ‘Visegrad Group’, composed of four Central European countries – Poland, Hungary, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic – who share common concerns about migration and sovereignty.

In each case, there is always a certain ambiguity about where the equilibrium is to be found between ‘doing less’ in more policy areas and doing ‘more efficiently in fewer: ‘doing less’ suggests we have to reckon with an increased role assumed by the Member States, and ‘more effectively in fewer areas’ brings us to consider increased action by the Union.

What are the chances that the principle of subsidiarity will remain relevant in discussions on the future of Europe?

Since 2019, the principle lost important supporters, like Jean-Claude Juncker, or the former Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz. Moreover, there seems to be a preference for the alternative scenario of ‘Those who want more do more.’ In the European Parliament, only the ‘Conservative and Reformist’ group gives ’Doing less, but better’ as its motto.

In the current context of states turning to subsidies, export controls and economic self-sufficiency in an attempt to reduce dependencies in strategic industries, the principle of subsidiarity may become attractive again, in the sense of ‘better tackling certain priorities together’, by doing more ‘in a reduced number of areas’, rather than ‘doing less.’

The principle will remain central in the debate. But how it is interpreted also depends on the solutions that need to be found in the responses to each new crisis the Union faces.

Many thanks, for reminding and enlightening us on this concept. I recall you are professor at Babeș-Bolyai University, in Romania.