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Rediscovering Subsidiarity

Subsidiarity is an important principle that seems to have got lost in modern politics. It is the principle that political issues should be handled at the lowest level at which they can be managed effectively. Its intellectual roots are Christian and if it were taken seriously the referendum about UK membership of the EU would probably not have been necessary.

The EU’s founding fathers were mostly Roman Catholics and subsidiarity was central to what they sought to achieve in the European Economic Community in 1952. Unfortunately the idea seems to have been lost by the time the EU evolved into its current form, leading to some of the more serious criticisms of those campaigning for Britain to leave. Michael Gove suggests that the UK’s exit could lead to a “Democratic liberation of a whole continent”. He wants Britain to be able to reassert the primacy of UK law and restore the Westminster Parliament as the sovereign legislature for this country. The Labour MP Gisela Stuart has made the same point.

Significantly, Jean-Claude Juncker, the President of the European Commission, has admitted that the EU meddles in matters that ought to be settled in national Governments and Parliaments, not in Brussels. Opinion polls in Denmark and Sweden reflect a growing hostility to the EU and the Netherlands have vetoed a treaty with Ukraine. Juncker recognises “We are interfering in too many domains where the member states are better placed to take action and pass legislation”.

Nor should subsidiarity stop at the national level. If our Government’s enthusiasm for domestic devolution is taken seriously, devolution to the Scottish Parliament, the National Assemblies for Wales and Northern Ireland would be a step towards subsidiarity. So too would devolution to the new conurbation assemblies with elected mayors. The risk is that those bodies might think that this is where subsidiarity stops. The next step is to find means of nurturing a more participative form of democracy at the very local level, breaking down the ‘them and us’ culture and encouraging citizens to think about what is good for the community, and not just their own interests. At root subsidiarity is a Christian ideal that would shape how we love our neighbours in political, social and economic terms.

What chance has this of ever being taken seriously? Not one of those nice ideas dismissed as impractical? David Cameron’s negotiations with the EU included rejection of ‘ever closer union’ and any involvement with the Eurozone andthe right of national Parliaments to veto EU legislation. The EU response accepted that “Reasoned opinions by national Parliaments on the application of the principles of subsidiarity and proportionality are to be duly taken into account by all institutions involved in the decision-making process of the Union”. Such statements in the past have not always been honoured but it is up to the critical members to ensure that they are in the future.

In a troubled world faced with terrorist threats, global warning, climate change, and damage to the planet’s eco- systems, population growth and the billion people in absolute poverty; working well together is essential for the survival of many. In this context, subsidiarity and shared responsibility go together and they are as important for our prayers as the self-centred agendas that probably dominate many of them.

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