Television remake of a black-and-white drama

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The Independent Online
STRIPPED of her more lurid language, Baroness Thatcher has a point. It is the same point that critics of European union have always made, and events have invariably vindicated their analysis. At each stage in the European Community's development, its critics have warned that more power would accrue to Brussels, and the Foreign Office has denied the charge. Each time, the critics have been proved right and the Foreign Office wrong.

Back in 1971, for example, Edward Heath's government published a White Paper on entry into the Community. It promised that there was 'no question of any erosion of essential national sovereignty'. That prophecy has worn rather worse than warnings by Enoch Powell and Tony Benn that Parliament would cease to be Britain's supreme law-making body.

We now have the political equivalent of a made-for-TV version of an old black- and-white drama. The words and costumes have changed, but that is about all. Consider Lady Thatcher's recent utterances. The key text is her speech to the Global Panel, an economic forum held in The Hague in mid-May. She asked whether Europe 'is to be a tightly regulated, centralised, bureaucratic, federal state imposing uniform standards throughout Europe, or a loose-knit, decentralised free-market Europe of sovereign states'.

Concepts such as 'centralised' and 'bureaucratic' are in the eye of the beholder. As Mr Heath often retorts, the European Commission employs fewer officials than the Scottish Office. But if we discard the loaded adjectives, Lady Thatcher's question is a real one; yet all we get is loose talk about 'subsidiarity'.

As a general principle of political behaviour, subsidiarity has much to commend it. The more local the decision-making process, the better. But that statement of principle does not get us very far. Much of politics since the dawn of time has concerned the conflict between collective rules and individual or local rights. Two recent examples from Brussels show why that conflict is no different at European level.

The first concerns billiard cues. Surely, if subsidiarity means anything, Brussels has no business deciding how much asbestos should be permitted in the manufacture of a cue tip? Yet, as Sir Leon Brittan, the EC's competition commissioner, argued in the Financial Times on Wednesday, 'UK billiard-cue tip makers would be less amused if their product was excluded from France as a fire hazard'.

A moment's thought shows how that kind of problem spreads into the need for myriad detailed, Europe-wide standards. Significant doses of bureaucracy, centralisation and uniformity are essential to the completion of the single market.

The second example concerns VAT. This week, Norman Lamont decided to accept EC legislation for a minimum rate of VAT across the Community. The Chancellor was not bound by any treaty obligation. He could have proclaimed the superior principle of subsidiarity and told the rest of the Community to stop interfering in decisions that properly belong to individual member states.

But Mr Lamont said no such thing. His reason was political, not technical. VAT is just one issue among many in tax harmonisation. The Government wants other countries to change their tax laws to end discrimination against British whisky exports. It is also concerned to defend Britain's right to maintain zero-rating on food, fuel, transport and children's clothes. So concessions were traded, a deal was done. In the continuing battle between harmonisation and subsidiarity, harmonisation fired the bigger guns.

Ministers claim that the Maastricht treaty tilts the balance of power back towards subsidiarity. But, as Lord Mackenzie Stuart, a former president of the European Court of Justice, says dismissively, their faith in the treaty 'shows great optimism'. Article 3b states: 'The Community shall take action . . . only if and in so far as the objectives of the proposed action cannot be sufficiently achieved by the Member States. . . . Any action by the Community shall not go beyond what is necessary to achieve the objectives of the treaty.'

That final sentence must have been written by a lawyer with a sense of humour. The treaty's objectives include: the promotion of balanced, sustainable and non-inflationary growth, respect for the environment, social cohesion, economic and monetary union, a common foreign and - eventually - defence policy, and the introduction of individual citizenship of a European Union. The list leaves national autonomy in a somewhat shrivelled condition. Article 3b's real function is to instruct Brussels not to bother with the small change of policy implementation. Sir Leon, for example, wants to lighten his own grip on the tiller by exempting member states from the need to notify Brussels of small-scale industrial subsidies. His move is a wise one, but it does not begin to justify the insistence of John Major this week on the all-important virtues of Article 3b.

When I put this point to the Foreign Office, I was told that ministers placed great store by the fact that if Maastricht is finally ratified the principle of subsidiarity will be incorporated for the first time in a treaty. It will therefore carry far more weight than, say, a close-of-summit communique: in the FO's words, 'it will be judiciable'.

Yes, but given the wording of the Maastricht treaty, not very. I cannot see the European Court of Justice striking large blows for national sovereignty. That does not mean the Prime Minister is wrong to address the conflict between centralised rules and national powers. But he needs to say far more if he is to win over the waverers inside his party. 'A treaty too far' requires a clearer, more persuasive riposte than 'judiciable subsidiarity for ever'.

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