Leading Article: That dreaded S-word

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The Independent Online
THE THREE elements on which Britain hopes to build its presidency of the European Community during the next six months are enlargement, budgetary restraint and subsidiarity. Of these, subsidiarity is intended to have the most public appeal. It is the instrument with which the Government hopes to drive the European Commission out of the 'nooks and crannies' of British life, woo back the Danes, defeat the Tory rebels and build a solid public consensus for the next stage of European union. As an aid to public relations, however, it also has the disadvantage that it opens up one of the most ambiguous, complex and debatable issues before the Community.

As the Foreign Secretary never tires of pointing out, the Maastricht treaty was a setback for federalists and centralisers in that it left foreign and security policies and many Home Office issues in the hands of national governments and formally enshrined the principle of subsidiarity in Article 3b. This states that the Community should act only where the objectives cannot be sufficiently achieved by member states. As a consequence, Community laws and proposals are now to be examined to determine whether they intrude on areas that should be left to national governments.

This sounds simple but will prove complex in practice. Curbing the responsibilities of the Commission will not be a matter of European governments uniting against the bureaucrats of Brussels. Many of the Commission's responsibilities have not been snatched by power-hungry officials but thrust upon the body by governments and, to some extent, the European Parliament. The Commission is overstretched and has been wanting for some time to reduce its involvement in detail.

Subsidiarity means different things to different governments, and often something else to their people. For Britain it can mean the right to drink dirty water, swim off polluted beaches and drive roads through beauty spots, so it will not be automatically popular, especially among environmental pressure groups, and it is causing disputes even within the British government. The French seem to hope that subsidiarity will give them freedom to subsidise state industries and permit mergers without reference to Brussels, which will be unpopular with other governments. Poorer countries can invoke it in defence of paying low wages and ignoring safety standards, which others will regard as creating unfair competition.

Thus any idea that the process of weeding out measures which do not pass the subsidiarity test will be a matter for cool lawyers and officials must be dismissed. If it is taken at all seriously, it will be a highly political matter requiring commitment and compromise among member governments holding different views of Europe and of their own responsibilities. Furthermore, if it is seen as a quick fix designed primarily for public relations purposes, it will risk making wrong decisions on much wider issues involving levels of government within nation states, as well as in Europe. In Germany, for instance, it has reopened debate on the powers of the Lander, and it could well do the same for local government in Britain.

For the British government, while holding the presidency, the basic principle to hold on to is that the primary responsibility of the Commission is to make the single market work properly when it comes into effect at the start of next year. The emphasis must therefore be on harmonisation of markets, reasonably level playing fields for industry, abolition of non-tariff barriers internally and the lowest-possible barriers to the outside world. Environmental issues impinge on the Community where they affect industrial costs or involve cross-frontier pollution by air or water, but if the British wish to swim in locally polluted waters, that is their affair, or they should take it up with their local and national authorities, though there might be a case for the Community insisting on full information being made public.

Despite the difficulties, the enterprise is important and potentially useful, not only as a means of bringing in the Danes. It reflects a popular perception that the powers of the Commission are ill defined and sometimes excessive. It will clarify principles against which new powers can be measured and, if necessary, tested in the courts. By opening up the possibility of appeal, it should also contribute to the transparency of European procedures. More than six months will be needed to grapple with the more profound issues it raises about the shape of an enlarged Community, but Britain will have a chance to set the process moving in a promising direction.