Subsidiarity is the principle that decisions should be taken at the closest possible level to the public, where that decision can be meaningfully taken. It's a principle that everyone will find attractive and agree with - how could you possibly be against? I support the idea, but when Nosemonkey asserted that giving subsidiarity true meaning and force would improve the EU and its legitimacy during the first Bloggingportal event panel, my first thought was a bit sceptical:
"Subsidiarity is probably one of the most tricky #EU legal concepts - how can you define it?"
Jon Worth replied:
"@EuropeanCitizen Subsidiarity is a conveninent cover for doing what you want to do, at whatever level #EU #EUuk - or am I too sceptical?"
Keeping decision making power at the lowest level possible where it would be effective is clearly a political ideal, and how to impliment it in practice causes a lot of difficulty. Since I study law, my mind immediately jumped to the European Court of Justice - after all, it is the institution which interprets the Treaties and which would rule whether or not the EU was acting within its competence or not. To my knowledge, the ECJ has not once found a breach of subsidiarity, and I am not aware of there being a test for subsidiarity, simply because it is so political it defies easy judicial interpretation.
I don't want to be misquoted here that subsidiarity is meaningless and the ECJ does nothing to limit EU power, because there are other, better, legal tools for doing so. The other 2 legal principles are those of conferral (the EU only has powers given to it by Treaty) and proportionality (EU actions must only so as far as is necessary to achieve their aims). (See Article 5 TEU). The Tobacco Advertising cases (I & II) are good examples of these principles being used (though arguably proportionality should have been more thorough), and the key point was that the internal market concerns cross-border trade, so the EU can only rely on those law-making powers to create laws that ease cross-border trade, not for health or for goods that would be fixed and not cross borders. These principles are either straight-forward or there is good judicial experience in the Member States to draw on to inform how they should be used. But when it comes to subsidiarity, what does it add to the judicial decision-making, and how could it be applied?
Subsidiarity is political, so it would be best enforced through political channels. The Lisbon Treaty gave the national Parliaments the ability to force the Commission to reconsider proposals if enough of them (at least 9) considered the proposal to breach the principle of subsidiarity. (See Protocol 2 of the Treaties). The time limit of 8 weeks is too short for it to be very effective, however, given the amount of co-ordination and co-operation that needs to take place among national parliaments. It does give them a useful tool which could be used effectively when the national parliaments organise themselves (which will take time and depend on their political will), but the time limits need to be extended. Open Europe has made this point, and it's a good one.
At the moment the Commission does a "check" on its proposals - do they conform with the Charter of Fundamental Rights, do they conform with the principle of subsidiarity, etc. The ECJ is likely to take political decisions on subsidiarity as being within the legislative discretion of the EP and Council and focus on other legal questions, but challenges from the national parliaments may force the ECJ to take it into account more (though it will be a long time, since it will more likely decide on procedural issues and on other legal grounds rather than face the difficult and politicised task of defining subsidiarity). Effective political channels are the best way of making subsidiarity more meaningful.
A last point on the role of national parliaments in the EU. At the Bloggingportal event, Mat Persson of Open Europe remarked that their role should be expanded beyond subsidiarity checks. To me, and I'm open to correction, this means national parliaments having a legislative role in place of or parallel to the EP. I'm completely against this. It would be good for national parliaments, through their committees to keep tabs on and control the votes of the national ministers in the Council, but becoming the "second chamber" of the EU would be damaging to transparency and accountability. Though the EP is not loved and turn-out is falling, it does, at least, provide an open, full-time forum for debates on EU legislation and scrutinising the executive.
National parliaments, on the other hand, tend to have little time of EU affairs, and their effectiveness varies from country to country on the powers they do have regarding the EU. Separate debates in 27 (or more) arenas in different languages would mean that the debates will become harder for the public to follow. Inter-parliamentary deals (alliances and deals made in now smokeless rooms) would be even more decisive for the legislative process. Though the EP has a low turnout and political organisation on a continental scale is more difficult, at least it provides the possibility of influencing the way EU legislation is dealt with and of expressing opinions more directly to the EU institutions about what they should be doing. Having the national parliaments take over would damage the transparency and accountability the EP provides (or potentially provides), and could even reduce the EU's legitimacy.