The Edinburgh Summit: Accord balances on a two-edged sword: Subsidiarity

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CAN you live without an EC- harmonised number plate? Is the idea of existence wthout standards for 'mechanical fixings and bolts in particular' too much? If you found out that dietary foods were to be untouched by the hand of Brussels, would you weep into your low-calorie instant soup?

If so, then weep now, for all these measures are casualties of the Great Subsidiarity Massacre. As part of its plans to re-examine the way the EC works, the Commission is to dump, rethink or amend proposals and existing legislation. Radio frequencies for the co-ordinated introduction of digital short-range radio communications may be safe from the directive; as may VAT on ships supplies; and zoo animals.

There is a host of other examples, all published in Edinburgh yesterday as the 'first fruits' of the EC's rethink. But the trouble with all this is that some groups are going to be very angry. Most of the proposals were introduced at the behest of a country, interest group or private-sector interest. The zoo animals proposal will cause apoplexy amongst some European parliamentarians and animal groups. Subsidiarity is a two-edged sword.

The headline-grabbers in the subsidiarity paper are the examples; but the real meat in the sandwich lies in the complex discussion of procedures and rules that follows. The Commission is charged with consulting more widely, and justifying itself more publicly. The Council of Ministers must think about things a bit harder, and consider in detail whether proposals are really necessary.

The dreaded concept of subsidiarity is also explained, in an attempt to amplify Article 3b of the Maastricht treaty, one of the less crystal clear results of European thought. This is the foundation of the whole exercise, the supposed safeguard against federalism.

The subsidiarity clause contains a strict limit on Community action, ensuring that 'the proposed action is within the limits of the powers conferred by the treaty and is aimed at meeting one or more of its objectives'.

The second paragraph of the clause contains a rule to answer the question: 'When should the Community act?' The answer is: 'When the objectives of the proposed action cannot be sufficiently achieved by member states' action and they can therefore be better achieved by action on the part of the Community.'

Thirdly, the subsidiarity clause contains a rule to answer the question: 'What should be the intensity or nature of the Community's action?' The answer is that administrative and financial burdens should be minimised, there should be as much scope for national action as possible, and standards should be minimums, rather than absolutes.

If all this sounds difficult, then you should settle down with a nice diet muesli bar and read the whole 11-page supplement. The EC may be changing its ways: but it has not lost the habit of explaining everything at enormous and incomprehensible length.