Leading Article: Big drama, narrow stage

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The Independent Online
BECAUSE Britain has been spared a referendum on the Maastricht treaty, the Conservative Party finds itself acting out some of the dramas that were performed on a wider national stage during France's prolonged campaign - but without a closing date. As across the Channel, the treaty has drawn to the surface all sorts of poisons that had been quietly festering away. Differences of outlook have acquired unpleasant personal overtones. Anti-EC Tory MPs have found themselves espousing the same causes as those on the left of the Labour Party, such as Dennis Skinner and Tony Benn. Yet the treaty, the focus of so much animosity, is itself - with Britain's two opt-out clauses - much less of a threat to national sovereignty than the Single European Act that Margaret Thatcher was happy to whip through the Commons.

Public opinion polls seem to confirm the same phenomenon: first the Maastricht treaty and then, paradoxically, sterling's withdrawal from the ERM have increased hostility to the EC. The treaty has, in Douglas Hurd's phrase, served as a lightning conductor: the recession having made a lot of people understandably surly and resentful, they have looked around for someone to blame. Interfering foreigners make a promising target.

Among particular scapegoats, the EC's main policy-initiating institution, the European Commission in Brussels, has been high on the list of targets. In many member states, clipping the Commission's wings is seen as a good way of allaying anxieties about Maastricht. That is why the EC's foreign ministers were yesterday working on a declaration on the principle of subsidiarity, to be produced at the Birmingham summit meeting on 16 October. It is expected to state that no decisions will be taken at EC level which can be better taken by national authorities.

Such phrasing reinforces the impression that the Commission is the sole source of regulations and directives. The truth is different, as an analysis by the Commission itself shows. Taking the 535 proposals that it made in 1991, the Commission found that it had initiated only about 30 measures, or 6 per cent, although some of these were important. Of the rest, the largest number flowed from the application of international agreements. Many others were prompted by requests from, or decisions by, the Council of Ministers (representing member states).

These are often well intentioned. This autumn, for example, the Commission was due to approve a draft directive in the transport of animals, regulating the amount of light, space and air that animals should be allowed in trains. The British, ever concerned about the welfare of animals, were behind this. They would doubtless have trumpeted the resulting legislation as a victory. The French and Italians would doubtless have regarded it as gross interference. In the name of subsidiarity, the draft has now been axed. Reactions to many directives intended to ensure a 'level playing field' in the commercial world are likely to be equally subjective.

Subsidiarity should mean that each decision is taken at the most appropriate level of government, ranging from the EC's institutions to local councils. Yet the Tories who most resent the power of Brussels tend also to be those, like Margaret Thatcher, who prove to be the greatest centralisers. Subsidiarity, too, makes strange bedfellows.