The European S-WordPosted: June 24, 2010
The principle that government power ought to reside at the lowest feasible level
The European subsidiarity principle is written in the Treaty of European Union at paragraphs 1 and 2 of the article 5 and described in Protocol 30 ; it has been introduced in 1992/1993 with the Maastricht Treaty and consolidated by the Lisbon Treaty in 2009.
Subsidiarity is way different than the French décentralisation ; it aims at putting more democracy and efficiency in political administration and decisions, and fight the public view of a distant technocracy. As an example, the German Länders also follow such a principle.
Before we go farther, let’s give two very important remarks :
First, we remind that the decision are taken at the lowest feasible level. That does not mean the decision will always be taken at the local level ; the main objective is to be efficient first, and as local as possible given this demand of efficiency.
Second, a little subtly: the domains where subsidiarity applies are only the domains of shared competence between different administrative levels. This is obvious when you think about it : if a competence is not shared, there is no need for any principle to decide which level take the decision. So if a domain is exclusively of the competence of, let’s say, the European Commission, subsidiarity does not apply there.
There are a fairly important number of challenges and issues that need to be addressed and dealt with in order to efficiently apply the subsidiarity principle :
First : how to define the best level where to take action ? What to do when what could be the optimum level in the general case is not ready ? And of course, what about the means (money, work force, …) necessary : if the competence is distributed, so should be the means, otherwise, there is no point to subsidiarity.
One of the big obstacle is the fact that decision making is an extremely politicized issue and the upper level will some times keep its hand on an issue ; either by pure conservatism, or to keep a key competence, or just by political game. This goes obviously at the opposite of the aims of subsidiarity.
The application of such a principle is also paired with the bottom-up counter part : if a lower level cannot deal with an issue, it has to hand it over to a upper level. This implies that the lower level knows what the upper one can do, and how it works. Subsidiarity is a system as a whole : which means every level needs to understand the system and have a knowledge of the politics at all levels.
Another issue is obviously the concern about the already distributed competences. As said above, subsidiarity is a global principle that needs to be implemented in every levels and for as much competence domains as possible to be effective. Which implies that previously distributed competences should be assessed to make sure everything is dealt with where it is the most efficient. In fact, when subsidiarity principle is applied competences as constantly redistributed in accordance to the needs of the moment.
One of the key element of a working subsidiarity-driven system is trust : trust between the different level of administration, and trust between the citizen and every level that could be called to take action.
The transfer of competence from one level to another needs to be quick, easy, efficient – with no fear of the issue being transferred back – there is absolutely no point of having committees and experts talking for days about who should handle a problem, on the opposite the process should be smooth and natural.
This are the challenges subsidiarity faces in Europe : the process is not enough known, ill-understood, seems too much technical and technocratic ; when it should be the opposite. And precisely, a working subsidiarity, would help so much to a better appreciation of the European competence while showing clearly that the citizens are in charge.