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Speeches, Interviews

18.04.2006

European Conference on Subsidiarity, Keynote Speech by Michel Delebarre


Subsidiarity, a dynamic protocol for bringing Europe closer to its citizens

 

- Check against delivery -

 

Mr President,
Honourable representatives of the European institutions,
Honourable Members of Parliament,
Ladies and gentlemen,

The European project is now at a crossroads between a purely functional concept based mainly on economic and social development and a resolutely political approach towards creating a democratic space for European citizens whilst respecting their national, regional and local identities. My ambitions for Europe and my convictions place me automatically among the proponents of this second approach.

I therefore consider the title chosen for this conference to be particularly apt because it constitutes an action programme for the future that will lead us out of the present impasse. Moreover, it could even be the Committee of the Regions' motto and I would willingly claim it as such were I not convinced that the European Union stood to gain considerably from its being shared by all European institutions. Indeed, this title highlights the weakness in the conception and development of the European project to date. By this I refer to its often excessively elitist nature, or to use the modern term: its top-down approach. It is not surprising that European citizens feel increasingly estranged from it.

To my mind, creating a genuinely democratic space at EU level remains the main challenge presented by the debates on re-launching the constitutional process that are to unfold in the coming months. I am wholeheartedly convinced that beyond any regrets that we may feel regarding the setbacks to the ratification of the Constitutional Treaty lies the fact that this debate has to take place, that it has to take place now, and that it has to include as many people as possible.

I have no doubt that the Austrian and Finnish presidencies will pay close attention to this – and today we intend to participate fully in this exercise. Nevertheless, this debate will have to be continued during the German, Portuguese, and Slovene presidencies. The credibility of European, national and local politicians depends on it and so does the survival of what we call the European model, which Chancellor Schüssel recently described as our common treasure.

I do not think that the purpose of the European project, our joint wager, should be called into question. But, on the other hand, the method should be extensively overhauled. I shall not cause offence by doubting the answer I would receive if I asked why we wished to build Europe. We would all include future development and sustainable development in our answers as well as improving the well-being of our co-citizens. However, we should attempt to answer the simple but crucial question of how to govern Europe.

In my opinion, it is a matter of deciding the most appropriate level of action and intensity of intervention.

1. First of all, which is the most appropriate level for responding to our citizens' needs? We should never tire of asking this question, which is partly the source of our crisis of confidence with our citizens. We all know the answer: subsidiarity.

This is the method chosen collectively by the European Union as the means of government for establishing and ensuring quality relations between political actors and citizens. It is also the only method that will restore the legitimacy of European policies for Europeans. Of course, not to all European policies, some will have to remain subject to uniform conception and application, but – let's admit it – to most EU policies.

But we must be careful. Subsidiarity should be used as a dynamic tool that can create "more Europe" in some areas and "less Europe" in others, whilst always prioritising efficiency and the democratic representation of our co-citizen's interest. We should not allow it to become a weapon that backfires on us by locking us into conflicts of jurisdiction. We must be guided solely by the aim of a "better Europe".

Bearing in mind the progress made towards European integration during the last 50 years or so, on the one hand, and the external pressures of globalisation on the other hand, there is ample reason to believe that an objective test of subsidiarity would force us to acknowledge that the most appropriate level is often the EU and sometimes the national level. But we should never lose sight of the impact, which is often local.

I think that we should welcome the fact that legislators have acquired the reflex of assessing the added value of acting at Community level. Nevertheless, we should guard against allowing this line of reasoning to call into question the acquis communautaire and succumbing to the temptation of introversion. To take some concrete examples, the added value of EU action is undeniable in the case of environmental protection, public health, and research. Similarly, the need for a European response to crisis management and in the area of freedom, security and justice is growing increasingly clear. Non-Europe also has its price and it would be dangerous to encourage our co-citizens along that road.

Allow me also to express my doubts and concerns regarding a purely legalistic or even jurisdictional perception of subsidiarity that sets levels of authority against each other and raises conflicts of jurisdiction. Without wishing to under-estimate the role and terms of reference of the Court of Justice, I believe that it is reasonable to admit that it is not in a position to settle disputes concerning the application of the principle of subsidiarity, which in extreme cases are necessarily few in number or symbolic. For this reason, it cannot be used as a systematic solution. It is not adapted to political debate and so it is of little use to its furtherance.

At the Committee of the Regions our perception of subsidiarity coincides with that of a modern European Union based on multi-level governance. Over the years, a multi-level governance system has come into being, thereby uniting the EU, its Member States, regions and local authorities in the implementation of its shared objectives: peace, freedom and prosperity.

In the Constitutional Treaty, the EU undertook to pursue and consolidate this political orientation. The Treaty reinforces European unity in several areas and in that context recognises under Article I-5 The Member States' "national identities, inherent in their fundamental structures, political and constitutional, inclusive of regional and local self-government". The drafters of the Constitutional Treaty fully incorporated the concept that responsibility must rest upon many shoulders and that the interactions of the various levels of authority required support.

This technique of government is based on networking, rather than on the old idea of a hierarchy of decision-taking. The political actors here act as partners and work together on an equal footing to find solutions for the increasingly complex issues facing the public sector.

The Committee of the Regions has been following this course for several years. It is undoubtedly the EU body that has most frequently debated and taken a stance regarding the principle of subsidiarity and its corollary, the principle of proportionality. It has placed the principle of proximity at the heart of the political debate and defended the cause of multi-level governance and its institutional and legal implications before the European Convention.

 

Ladies and gentlemen,

2. This brings me to the second question that I wanted to tackle: the intensity of intervention and the necessary conditions for safeguarding local and regional interests.

I think that I can state that recent years have been marked by substantial progress regarding the involvement of local and regional authorities in the preparation, implementation and assessment of EU legislation as well as its impact on the ground. This progress can no longer be denied and should therefore serve as the basis for an EU-wide "democratic partnership".

Permit me to give two examples of practices that I hope are now relegated to the past and which illustrate clearly how things can and must change.

Example 1: The European institutions intend to launch an information and media campaign to stimulate genuine discussion among European citizens. The method chosen so far is based on financing standard programmes approved in Brussels and implemented at ministerial level in each Member State – It hasn't worked. The only real alternative, which is both more efficient and democratic, consists in the direct and coordinated involvement of the local and regional authorities, alongside MEPs, because they are in daily contact with the citizens.

Example 2: The EU budget for the next seven years is currently being negotiated between the European Council, the European Parliament, and the Commission. This is a matter of standard procedure established by the Treaties and considerably improved since the role of the European Parliament was strengthened. Nevertheless, what are we to make of a decision-making process that is so far removed from local realities that it could change the futures of millions of farmers and many regions from one day to the next, without prior public consultation on the ground? Here again, a method that was more consistent with existing democratic practices in our countries and our co-citizens' legitimate aspirations for participation in public decisions could lead the European institutions to profoundly reform this system. The various components of local and regional authorities must, in good time and through transparent democratic mechanisms, be heard.

The Committee of the Regions has considered at which point it is most opportune for it to intervene in the existing, undeniably complex, EU decision-making process.

Today, under the regime of the Nice Treaty, and tomorrow, I hope, under the Constitutional Treaty of the European Union, the answer is clear: The Committee intends to focus its action on the pre-legislative phase. If we wish to contribute effectively towards greater transparency and democratic legitimacy for EU legislation, we should act in advance, mainly through early consultation. This is a point that the Committee of the Regions emphasised in October 2005 in its Opinion on Better Lawmaking 2004, an opinion for which I had the honour of being appointed rapporteur.

If it is the Committee of the Regions' role to ensure that the interests and responsibilities of local and regional authorities are taken into account as much as possible, it is mainly to facilitate the process of integrating EU action. Under no circumstance does it have an interest in playing the dangerous game of complicating or obstructing the EU decision-making process.

The cooperation agreement between the Committee of the Regions and the European Commission as well as interinstitutional initiatives in the framework of the action plan for "better lawmaking" have created other useful tools to help it along this path and to promote the participation of regions and towns. I refer particularly here to the consultation process and the establishment of "structured dialogue". I am also thinking of impact assessments and early warnings that the Committee of the Regions could pass on from the local and regional authorities when they realise that certain laws are likely to involve extremely heavy administrative or financial costs. I am also thinking of the new approaches to regulation, such as codes of conduct or recommendations that bind members of a scientific community or profession. These tools, which call for dialogue between the European institutions and the heterogeneous world of local and regional authorities, are based on the coordinated actions and political synthesis of the Committee of the Regions.

I am sure that this pragmatic approach will enable us to make rapid progress towards greater local and regional involvement in the preparation and implementation of European policies. In this way, we will bring greater realism and consistency to EU action and we will raise its profile with citizens.

I think you will have understood that the key words in the Committee of the Regions' credo are partnership, democracy, dialogue, cooperation, and finally, flexibility.

 

Ladies and gentlemen,

The presence of a Committee of the Regions delegation at this conference and the position we have taken on this occasion testify to the importance we attribute to interinstitutional cooperation in this area and dialogue between different levels of authority.

In this respect, although I have focused on the subject of our workshop - the contribution of the regions and the local authorities to bringing Europe closer to its citizens – I would like to stress the fact that the Committee of the Regions considers the institutional triangle including the European Commission's right of initiative and the prerogatives of the European Parliament as co-legislator constitutes the frame of reference that must be preserved.

We should also strive in our respective Member States to improve the process and procedures for transposing EU legislation. Without meaning to be unduly provocative, regions are often held back by delays in national transposition or by regulatory burdens. In addition, and always in the context of upstream intervention, I believe that we should consider ways of integrating a support and follow-up mechanism at national level for involving the local and regional authorities at this crucial stage in the implementation of EU legislation.

I would like to conclude by asking the presidency of this conference to take note of its final declaration and the tenor of this speech, which is a testimony of our philosophy with regard to the guiding principles for European governance - the principles of subsidiarity, proportionality, and proximity - as well as the concept of the Committee of the Regions' political and institutional role, which I have described to you. I recognise that they favour constant political oversight of the coercive approach towards monitoring subsidiarity and I will undertake this on behalf of the Committee of the Regions.

It is equally essential that this conference, and the June European Council, emphasised that subsidiarity does not stop at the national level. It is the responsibility of European heads of state and government to remember why they embarked upon the road to the Constitutional Treaty - because Europe is made up of the European Union, its states, regions and local authorities.

Finally, I would urge you to take our recommendations into consideration in view of the European Council in June, which will decide the future of the constitutional process and will probably extend the period of reflection. I thank you for your attention.

 

Date: 18.04.2006