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Speeches, Interviews

18.04.2006

European Subsidiarity Conference, Keynote Speech Paavo Lipponen


European Parliament and national Parliaments – partners or rivals?

 

 

Mr President, Ladies and Gentlemen,

The European Union was created as an infrastructure for peace, stability and prosperity. The Member States decided to pool sovereignty because these goals are beyond the reach of individual states acting alone. In the early 21st century, our task is to harness globalisation to create prosperity. To create jobs, we need to remove barriers to growth – by cooperation at both the European and the global level. This must be the background to any debate on Europe. This perspective is also essential for a discussion of subsidiarity.

To the question "is there a rivalry between the European Parliament and national parliaments?" the correct answer is almost always, "no". The roles of the EP and national parliaments are complementary, because the legitimacy of the European Union stands on two legs. The European Union stands for both its citizens, who directly elect their representatives to the EP, and the Member States and their citizens, whose democratic will is expressed by national parliaments.

In the particular case of subsidiarity, we should recognise its built-in conflict of interests. The very notion of subsidiarity implies that some issues are best decided at the national or sub-national, not the European, level. However, in practical political terms, the conflict is more academic than real.

Although subsidiarity has been discussed for at least some twenty years, there is little agreement about what the term actually means. The Maastricht Treaty begins by defining the EU as a union, "in which decisions are taken as closely as possible to the citizen".

Maastricht also introduced the subsidiarity clause that we have today: The EU shall take action only if and when the objectives of the action can not be reached by national means. Subsequently, the Amsterdam Treaty introduced a protocol that required the Commission to justify its actions in terms of subsidiarity. The Constitutional Treaty went on to introduce a mechanism that allowed national parliaments (but not regional or local bodies) to challenge EU legislative proposals on subsidiarity grounds.

The Convention preparing the Constitutional Treaty spent much time and effort on analysing the competences of the Union and the Member States. The Convention's job, as specified by the Laeken European Council, was to look at ways of enhancing subsidiarity. The Convention did not return any competence from the Union to the Member States. On the contrary, the Constitutional Treaty adds somewhat to the EU's competences.

The Treaty definition of subsidiarity is actually quite narrow. To challenge a proposal on subsidiarity grounds, a national parliament needs to demonstrate that the proposal's objective could be achieved just as well by national or sub-national means. Such cases are bound to be rare, because the Treaty in any case only authorises Union legislation when there is a supra-national objective at stake. Also, EU legislation needs at least a qualified majority in the Council, that is, the agreement of quite a few Member States. After a proposal has passed these hurdles, there is not much room for a national parliament to challenge it on subsidiarity grounds.

The Constitutional Treaty's subsidiarity provisions do not address the situation of regional legislative bodies. This issue was quite properly left to be decided internally by the Member States concerned.

My conclusion is that the Treaties do not address what is commonly meant by "subsidiarity".  Conversely, "subsidiarity" has become shorthand for many different things: legislation that is too detailed, redundant or simply badly drafted.

The Eduskunta has scrutinised proposed EU legislation in terms of subsidiarity for more than ten years. Not a single case has been identified of an actual breach of the subsidiarity principle. However, there are regularly complaints that proposed directives are unduly detailed or do not take enough account of local circumstances in the different Member States. In the Finnish experience, the EU rarely, if ever, tries to legislate when there is no legitimate EU-wide objective. The problem is that the proposed legislation is more intrusive than the objective requires. Let me give an example:

The Biocide Directive banned, in 2003, the use of pine tar – along with many other wood preservatives – in products sold to consumers. The directive is reasonable, because tar may be carcinogenic. In a market where goods move freely, it is also reasonable that the ban is issued at the European level. However, the directive caused uproar in Finland, where tar is used (in small quantities) to protect, among other things, traditional rowing boats and historic buildings.  This is a practical problem that Finland is working out with the Commission. It clearly has nothing to do with subsidiarity. Rather, the problem is that the directive did not leave enough room for necessary, limited derogations. I am sure that every delegation present here can cite similar examples.

The Finnish view is that subsidiarity is an important principle. It is seldom breached. Its main value is that it forces the Commission to justify its proposals; why should a particular action be taken by the Union rather than the Member States? However, the subsidiarity principle often does not solve the problems it is meant to address, like undue detail, overregulation, etc. These problems are addressed more effectively by such measures as the better regulation initiative.

The European Convention demonstrated that "bringing back" competences from the Union to the Member States is not practical. Europe's main task today is to improve competitiveness and thereby create jobs. This implies more, not less, European cooperation, for which the EU is the only effective vehicle. Competitiveness also calls for better, but less not more, regulation.

What we really need to address is something in which the European Parliament, national parliaments and regional legislators have a role: the quality of legislation. Obviously the European Parliament is a European legislator. National and regional parliaments' powers to influence European legislation depend on national constitutions. In many cases, this power is great, but even when not; there is a power to influence national governments. These powers should be focussed on demanding European legislation that meets basic criteria: (1) The EU should never legislate when there is an option. (2) The EU should not issue a regulation, when a directive would do the job. (3) When setting objectives, the EU should not decide means, unless this is absolutely necessary. (4) Laws can and should be drafted in language that the educated layman can understand.

All European institutions should share in the responsibility for the quality of legislation. When amendments are made in the legislative process, care should be taken that the final outcome is a clear and consistent legal norm. Laws are made to clarify the rules, not to subsidize lawyers.

We must be careful that the subsidiarity mechanism in the Constitutional Treaty does not further encumber an already complicated decision-making system. There is a risk that national parliaments, possibly with the backing of their governments, use the subsidiarity mechanism for unrelated reasons, for instance to change the substance of EU legislation. If this happens, the EU's ability to function will suffer.

We should insist that the subsidiarity mechanism is a political tool, not primarily a legal construction. When there is disagreement about whether an objective is better achieved by European or national action, this needs to be solved promptly and by negotiation, not through prolonged litigation.

The Constitutional Treaty was agreed by the representatives of all current Member States. Despite the well-known setbacks, this document is the best that we are likely to achieve. If Europe is to regain its momentum, the Constitutional Treaty will have to be approved, preferably as it is. I am convinced that this will happen, because there really is no alternative.

 

Date: 18.04.2006