'Citizens of member states must back move for change': Confusion over subsidiarity

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THE European Community yesterday set out in the Birmingham Declaration a manifesto for change intended to build 'a Community close to its citizens'. But many of the commitments it contained were vaguely worded and subsidiarity, the concept at the centre of reform efforts, was if anything more confusing than ever. It was clear that most of the hard work remains to be done, and that Jacques Delors' prize for a one-page definition acceptable to all is still up for grabs.

The document reaffirms the leaders' commitment to the Maastricht treaty. They say they 'need to ratify it to make progress towards European union if the Community is to remain an anchor of stability and prosperity in a rapidly changing continent, building on its success over the last quarter of a century'. But, the declaration notes, the Twelve can only proceed with the support of their citizens. The exercise was initiated in the aftermath of the Danish and French referenda, which showed strong opposition to the EC.

The central element in the declaration is a pledge to bring to life the principle of subsidiarity. This is enshrined in the Maastricht treaty as the idea that action should be taken by the most effective level, whether nation-state or Community. But before it can be made to work, all of the EC's members are agreed it has to be fleshed out. The declaration makes a start. It says that 'greater unity can be achieved without excessive centralisation'. A tougher formulation was removed from the final draft. It stresses that the EC can only act 'where member states have given it the power to do so in the treaties', and that EC action should happen only 'when proper and necessary'. This was watered down from a British draft which limited EC action to 'when indispensable'.

The bulk of the work on making all this concrete has yet to happen. The Council of Ministers and the Commission are both to draw up procedures and guidelines for making subsidiarity work before the Edinburgh summit in December. Then, EC leaders will also consider policy areas where existing legislation needs to be reviewed. They will not take final decisions on this: again, it was removed from the final draft.

The problem is in one sense very simple. One way of looking at the EC is as the core of a future federal Europe, in which case power-sharing between them is a crucial problem. Mr Delors, in his presentation to the summit, stressed that subsidiarity could only operate properly in a federal system, a point often also made by opponents of the Maastricht treaty. Again, in the final draft a reference to 'the fundamental principles of European union' was introduced. But for other exponents of subsidiarity, it is fundamentally about preserving the powers of sovereign nation-states, a point made by Douglas Hurd. Britain, as EC President, finds itself in the uncomfortable position of having to reconcile the two positions to everyone's satisfaction.

In an hour-long presentation to EC leaders, Mr Delors said there were three conditions on the operation of subsidiarity. First, it should not affect the acquis communautaire - the body of existing EC law. However, the EC decided at the Lisbon summit that existing legislation should be checked and if neccessary unwound. Second, it should not affect the balance of Community institutions - principally the Commission, the Council of Ministers and the Parliament. This point was also included in the declaration. It is very important to the EC's smaller and poorer countries that the Commission should not be paralysed, as they depend on it to support the wishes of all states.

'Subsidiarity must not mean a re- nationalisation of Community politics,' said Poul Schluter, Denmark's Prime Minister. Yet if subsidiarity is to mean a shift in the power relations in Brussels, it would mean a change in the balance of institutional relations.

Third, there must be agreement between the EC's institutions before any such proposals could operate. The Commission is jealously guarding its powers, and so is the European parliament. It figures prominently in the Birmingham Declaration, more so than national parliaments.

Transparency, the other key idea for making the EC more user-friendly, was given little more substance in the Birmingham Declaration. But there were some more hopeful signs, since practical proposals have been put on the table. Opening parts of EC meetings, publishing minutes and publicising consultation documents as green papers were all suggested as ways of increasing the openess of EC decisionmaking. The other main element in the declaration was a commitment to involve national parliaments more closely in EC matters. The overall tone of the meeting was summed up in the declaration's attempt to show a united face for all 12 governments, with a document written in plain English and aimed at showing the EC's will to change. But the problem is that, as the subsidiarity debate shows, even when EC leaders are talking publicly, they are not always easy to understand. By the end of the day, it sounded more like a lesson in Zen Buddhism than practical politics.