Strong Subsidiarity, Strong Europe

A strong Europe needs the support of national, regional, and local politicians, as much as strong municipalities in Europe need a strong umbrella like the EU. Unfortunately, the EU’s credibility has been increasingly suffering due to the Euro crisis of the early 2010s, the migration crisis of the mid-2010s, and now the pandemic of the early 2020s. European citizens were unsatisfied with the results and the work of the EU in managing these three crises.

Especially when it comes to COVID-19, the Commission has faced severe criticism for the slow vaccine rollout. According to recent data, less than 20% of EU citizens have so far received their first jab, compared with 60% of British adults and more than 50% of US citizens. From an economic perspective, the EU also lags behind: in the last quarter of 2020, the US economy grew by 4,1% and China’s growth was 6,5%, while our economy was still shrinking. If the EU does not start doing a better job, we will soon face the next crisis – a crisis of the European political system, which is losing the confidence of its citizens and even of national parliamentarians.

What do we need for a stronger Europe? And what can municipalities do to help build it? To begin with, the EU needs more democratic legitimacy. Mayors and regional parliamentarians have a great deal of legitimacy, enjoying a higher level of citizens’ trust than either national or EU authorities. Therefore, the European Commission, which is appointed, also needs the support of national parliaments and regional and local entities such as municipal governments to get legitimacy. Moreover, the EU needs more transparency in all phases of the legislative process to re-establish its credibility. Finally, the EU needs a stronger involvement of citizens but also of national parliaments and regional representatives in the legislative process. In other words: the EU needs more subsidiarity!

However, we currently see the opposite: the influence of national and regional parliamentarians has decreased year by year, as proven by two examples. First, we have more and more EU regulations, with less and less directives. In the year 2000, we had sixteen regulations and thirty-nine directives. In the year 2017, we had fifty-two regulations and only fourteen directives. In the year 2020, the numbers were forty-six regulations and only five directives. Directives, unlike regulations, give national parliaments and regional legislative assemblies the chance to be fully involved as lawmakers in the legislative procedure. This means that, over the last 20 years, there was a silent but important transformation, weakening national and regional legislation and transferring power to Brussels. We see three times more regulations than in 2000, a development that threatens the principle of subsidiarity and causes more centralism and overregulation.

Second, we observe the same upward trend in the number of delegated acts, which are not subject to subsidiarity scrutiny by national parliaments. The number of delegated legal acts increased from thirty-eight in 2012 to a hundred and sixteen in 2018, reaching a hundred and twenty-five in 2020. National parliaments and regions are not involved in this procedure and with such delegated legal acts, the EU Commission intervenes in national politics with far-reaching consequences without solid controls about the added value of its actions.

We should also mention that there has been a strong reduction of ‘subsidiarity complaints’ by national parliaments. National parliaments have the right to submit a reasoned opinion (a ‘subsidiarity complaint’) whenever they consider that draft legislative acts do not comply with the principle of subsidiarity. The Commission must take account of the reasoned opinions it receives and, if they exceed a certain number, must review its proposal. This is known as the ‘yellow card’ procedure. In 2013 there were eighty-three such opinions, in 2017 forty-eight, in 2018 forty-three, while they had dropped to zero in 2019 and amounted to only twelve in 2020.

The reason is simple: national parliaments have realised that this ‘yellow card’ procedure does not work properly. So far, there were no direct effects on the outcome of any legal act, even in the few instances when the ‘yellow card’ threshold was reached. Therefore, we should rethink the procedure if we really mean it to work and are serious about strengthening the role of national and local parliamentarians in EU decision-making.

I am a strong supporter of European integration. Those who, like me, care about its prospects should agree that we could bring the EU much closer to citizens by putting the principle of subsidiarity into effect in more practical ways. In 2018, the Task Force on Subsidiarity, Proportionality and ‘Doing Less More Efficiently’, of which I was a member, already elaborated valuable recommendations in this regard, especially with a view to better involving the regional and local levels. Mayors and municipal council members should play – like national parliamentarians – a more important role.

Unfortunately, preparations for the Conference on the Future of Europe, which is scheduled to start soon, in May 2021, confirm my scepticism. Subsidiarity is not a priority on its agenda. The Committee of the Regions is not invited to participate as a member in the Executive Board but is only represented by an observer. National parliaments too can only take part in an observer capacity via the COSAC troika. I am an optimist by nature, but, as far as the real importance attributed to the principle of subsidiarity in the EU goes, I cannot help feeling increasingly pessimistic.