Brussels wields scourge of Mussolini: Annika Savill, Diplomatic Editor, traces the murky progress of the word 'subsidiarity' from Fascist Rome to Britain's presidency of the EC

Click to follow
The Independent Online
EVER wonder where that word that doesn't even sound like a proper word comes from? Or why it might not just as well be called ancilliarity or decentralisation?

You may well ask, for 'subsidiarity' - the concept which has now crept into the public consciousness because Britain says it will protect its sovereign interests against the octopus in Brussels - is not, in fact, a proper word in English at all (neither Shorter Oxford nor Chambers dictionaries lists it).

It comes from the German translation of an Encyclical Letter written by Pope Pius XI during Mussolini's regime; the encyclical, Quadragesimo Anno (1931), was intended to defend the rights of the individual against Mussolini's Fascist state. 'It is an injustice,' Pius concluded, 'a grave evil and a disturbance of right order for a larger and higher association to arrogate to itself functions which can be performed efficiently by smaller and lower societies.' (By 'higher association' Pius did not intend the Roman Catholic Church, but a state by which individuals increasingly found themselves confronted.)

From the Latin subsidiarii officii principium, the Germans invented Prinzip der Subsidiaritat. For the German subsidiar, the English text spoke of 'fundamental principle of social philosophy'; even the French translation originally spoke only of principe de la fonction suppletive de toute collectivite; this eventually came to be abbreviated to principe de subsidiarite.

In the 1970s, 'subsidiarity' started cropping up informally in the EC debate about the allocation of powers to different levels of government - Community, national and regional. But the man who re-invented the word in the official debate was none other than Jacques Delors.

In 1989, in a speech at Bruges - a place remembered better in Britain for a speech by Margaret Thatcher the same year - Mr Delors declared: 'I often have occasion to go back to federalism as a method, while including the principle of subsidiarity. I see in it the inspiration to reconcile what seems to many to be irreconcilable.' The Commission, he said, 'must never succumb to the intoxication of its powers' and must therefore 'apply rigorously the principle of subsidiarity'.

A top aide to Mr Delors said privately yesterday: 'The great paradox about you British is that subsidiarity is part of federalism, which you say you're so afraid of.'

Hours earlier, John Major had spoken of the need to 'entrench subsidiarity as a way of life'. A curious choice of verb: Helen Wallace and Marc Wilke concluded two years ago in their learned and prescient Chatham House discussion paper on the subject that subsidiarity in itself was no solution: 'It must be tempered by a recognition that entrenching subsidiarity would be no panacea.'