EC guide to minding your own business: Sarah Lambert considers what the idea of subsidiarity means to different member states

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The Independent Online
TO ENHANCE public understanding of its role, the European Community has come up with a six-syllable word to define a simple concept - do not poke your nose in where it is not needed.

Subsidiarity is the EC buzzword of the moment. When properly applied it is hoped it will cure Euro-scepticism by proving to the critics that the unelected EC bureaucracy does not trample over the general will but takes responsibility only for those decisions that are not better made by another authority: national governments, parliaments or regional authorities.

It is not, even in EC terms, a new concept. In the 1980s the European Commission began considering how to incorporate it into working methods. Decisions should not only be passed down, but up too. The regulations required should be in proportion to the end objective.

Now, the word for which no one could ever find a suitable synonym is fast on its way to becoming a household term as politicians of every hue seek to give it practical meaning. European institutions and most member-state governments are now engaged in trying to define subsidiarity. The winning contributions are to be announced at the Edinburgh summit in December.

But already the task is proving difficult. Because subsidiarity has no exact legal definition, it can be made to mean all things to all people. A fundamental difference of political vision also clouds the issue. Britain would argue that subsidiarity means the EC stepping in only where national governments cannot cope. Others, such as the Netherlands, would argue in favour of greater initiative, suggesting it means the EC should set standards of excellence. Germany favours a more codified approach that legally defines responsibilities.

If the concept cannot be made legally binding in some way it is unlikely to have much relevance. Those who conceive of subsidiarity as more of a public-relations exercise - the rolling back of petty legislation already in existence - are missing the point, say the lawyers. Nothing is that simple. To repeal legislation already on the statute book is, in itself, a legislative act.

Article 3b of the Maastricht treaty is not much help. It merely states: 'In areas which do not fall within its exclusive competence, the Community shall take action, in accordance with the principle of subsidiarity, only if and in so far as the objective of the proposed action cannot be sufficiently achieved by member states and can, therefore, by reason of the scale or effects of the proposed action, be better achieved by the Community.'

When the spotlight was first turned on the Commission's President, Jacques Delors, he said subsidiarity could usefully be applied, for example, to environmental policy - an area that has often brought the British government into conflict with Brussels.

From a British perspective this might mean that the EC could be asked to legislate on clean-water standards for European beaches but might not interfere in road policy. This is all very well for an island state, where it could be argued that roads are clearly a case for national legislation. This logic, however, has less validity when it is applied to continental Europe, where roads do not stop at frontiers.

Or take the example of the Europlug. Anyone who has had to rewire a hair-dryer would probably argue for harmonised standards for electrical fittings. But some sections of industry have argued that unless such standards are made uniform throughout the Twelve, there can be no truly free trade in electrical goods. Member states complain about the cost of rewiring a nation.

The details are important because so much of the EC's job is, and always has been, not to define grand political strategy but to propose highly technical legislation to help to underpin greater economic cohesion.

'You will say that such discussion is trivial at this time,' said Martin Bangemann, the commissioner for the internal market, introducing legislation harmonising standards for two-wheeled vehicles. 'But without such standards Europe will never happen.'