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Subsidiarity and Philosophy

John Crosthwaite probes the hidden logic of some Eurospeak.

As an official, albeit a minor one, of the European Commission, I will confine my remarks to quotations from documents in the public domain. I should also add a disclaimer and point out that any views expressed, other than those directly attributed, are those of the author; they do not come from the Commission.

2.0. The Word – an Early Mention in the Press

“Subsidiarity: look it up and you will not find it……Anti-neologists can blame it on the Vatican, and on the Christian Democrats who filched it from Pope Pius XI’s encyclical of 1931, ‘Quadragesimo Anno’.

The Church’s aim was to define the principle that decisions affecting people’s lives should be taken as far down the chain of command as possible, ideally by individuals or in families. In Eurospeak,……subsidiarity means that the Community should do only those things that member-states cannot do better.”

The Economist, December 9, 1989

3.0. Subsidiarity and the Treaty of Maastricht

Subsidiarity is mentioned under Article 3.b. of the Treaty;

“The Community shall act within the limit of the powers conferred upon it by this Treaty and of the objectives assigned to it therein. In areas which do not fall within its exclusive competence, the Community shall take action, in accordance with the principle of subsidiarity, only if and in so far as the objectives of the proposed action cannot be sufficiently achieved by the Member States and can therefore, by reason of the scale or effects of the proposed action, be better achieved by the Community. Any action by the Community shall not go beyond what is necessary to achieve the objectives of this Treaty.”

4.0. Subsidiarity and Discontinuity

Since then, the debate has heated up on the interpretation and application of the Subsidiarity principle. I do not intend to enter into these discussions but to look at the philosophical implications of a statement made by the Commission which appeared in a clarification on Subsidiarity provided by the President, Mr. Jacques Delors to the European Parliament;

“Subsidiarity …. implies a clear division of competence, leaving no grey areas between the subjects allocated to the Community and those reserved to the Member States. This is important, given that such grey areas tend to be infiltrated by the much criticized technocracy..” (emphasis added).

Commission of the European Communities Directorate-General Audiovisual, Information, Communication and Culture, Monthly Newsletter on the Single Market, June 1992.

It is this matter of division of competence – of there being nothing in between the centre and the component parts – that is the concern of this examination.

What prompted this train of thought was the following drawing in the Autumn 1992 edition of Philosophy Now :

The above optical illusion is strikingly similar to another illusion, the Necker cube……

“…the transition from one way of seeing it to another is discontinuous. You cannot stop it halfway ; you cannot catch the little circle in motion from the centre of one face to the corner of another. There is no way to predict how the figure will appear at first glance, but the reversal after a few seconds is always the same.

Whatever the perceptual mechanisms at work, the change itself is stable. Both visual interpretations are coherent. Both make sense of the pattern.” (emphasis added).

A. Woodcock and M. Davis, Catastrophe Theory, Penguin Books, 1978, p 21.

5.0 No Grey Areas – True or False?

Sir Karl Popper claims that no statements can be proved true, but some statements can be proved false. The Duck-Rabbit or Necker cube illusions serve to illustrate discontinuity. They do this with conviction and clarity. The point is, does Subsidiarity conform to these complete transformations and thus avoid the risk, referred to under 4.0 above, of entering into grey areas?

This is where I must hand the question over to the real philosophers.

© John Crosthwaite 1993

John Crosthwaite is with the European Commission delegation in Sierra Leone.

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