Whatever Happened to EU Subsidiarity?

FRANKFURT – As the end of 2015 approaches, many people may be thinking of their New Year’s resolutions for the coming year: to eat healthier, drink less, and go to the gym more often. More likely than not, however, a few weeks later, they will still be overeating, drinking too much, and wondering when they last saw their gym card.

These self-control issues, it turns out, are not unique to people. Organizations and governments can suffer from similar lapses in self-discipline. Consider, for example, the European Union’s approach to subsidiarity, the principle that decisions should be left to the most local form of government able to handle them. For more than 20 years, the EU has promised to adhere to it. But no sooner have such pledges been made than they have been broken.

The principle of subsidiarity – derived from the Latin word meaning “to aid” – was enshrined in 1992 in the EU’s founding treaties. The principle holds that assistance should be given only when and as required. Those closest to the issues know them best and are best-placed to address them. Higher levels of government, including the EU, should intervene only when it is truly necessary.

In the abstract, subsidiarity has been remarkably popular. In 1989, Jacques Delors, the eighth president of the European Commission, described it as a way to reconcile the need for “a European power capable of tackling the problems of our age” with “the absolute necessity to preserve our roots in the shape of our nations and regions.” Simply put, he said, the principle means that “we [should] never entrust to a bigger unit anything that is best done by a smaller one.”