The subsidiarity problem, part 1

J Clive Matthews
8 October 2007
Volvo - emblematic of the EU's problem?

The Tomorrow's Europe deliberative poll aims to find out what the people of the EU as a whole would think were they sufficiently informed and able to discuss issues freely amongst themselves. Yet one of the biggest ongoing criticisms of the EU is that what the people of Europe as a whole may think is hardly an appropriate constituency on which to base decisions.

An article by Matthew Engel in this week's Financial Times FT Magazine (entitled "Brussels' glaring stupidity") provides an ideal illustration. For the last few years, Engels reveals, there has been a move in Brussels to create EU-wide legislation on the use of car headlights, with a drive to make all car manufacturers follow Volvo's example and have headlamps on all day round, to increase visibility. Moderately sensible for northern countries, from which Volvos hail, due to the shorter days, but far less sensible in the brighter parts of southern Europe.

After various pieces of pondering at a bureaucratic level, Engels notes, in 2006 the plans were opened to public consultation. Out of the EU's 459 million population, only 117 people bothered to write in to offer their views. As Engels notes:

"the concern here has nothing to do with driving, and everything to do with democracy. The headlights question is emblematic of how decisions are taken in Europe. Yes, there is debate, but it is so far removed from the ordinary voter that 99 per cent of the population are likely to hear nothing until the law is passed - and maybe not even then."

If the people don't know about the laws that are being passed in their name, how can they feel engaged? How can they feel as if their voice counts? Engels reaches a damning conclusion:

"The tradition of a democratic polity that dates back to Athens cannot include the European Union. It is too big and too diffuse... This is not how successful democracies operate... [and] as inappropriate, barely debated new regulatios cover the continent, so alienation from the European project increases."

The Tomorrow's Europe poll aims to find out what Europe as a whole thinks about the EU. But is it appropriate to find out what a group thinks when it takes in 27 countries, 23 official languages (plus countless others), and nearly half a billion people? Will it ever be possible for "the people of Europe" to think as one when their circumstances and concerns are bound to be so diverse?

Time, then, to look more closely at a supposed principle of the EU - the issue of subsidiarity, the long-feted drive for decisions only to be taken at an EU-wide level when that is the best level at which they should be taken. More to follow...

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