David Lidington’s letter to Conservative Party members on ‘reform in Europe’ tells us not very much about almost nothing at all. It is measured, upbeat and polite, but that is the essential optimism and generous disposition of the man himself. The only interesting glimpse it offered into current thinking was confirmation of his ignorance of the Maastricht Treaty. Perhaps, like Kenneth Clarke, he hasn’t bothered to read it.

The Europe Minister wrote: ‘I’m sure [members] will be pleased to know that in their Subsidiarity Review, the Dutch Government proposed a new principle: ‘at European level only when necessary, at national level whenever possible’.’

It isn’t clear if this ‘new principle’ is untrodden ground to the Dutch Government or to David Lidington: I hope the former, if only because I expect the Europe Minister to be rather more informed and better advised. Whichever it is, that such chicanery can be sent out to loyal, intelligent and discerning Conservatives in the hope of fobbing them (indeed, us) off with frivolous sloganeering only serves to perpetuate the epistemic distance between the parliamentary and voluntary wings of the party.

Subsidiarity is the principle of governance which ensures that decisions are taken as closely to the citizen as possible: the ‘centre’ may only enact new laws where ‘localism’ is deemed deficient or insufficient. The term emerged in the 1930s within Roman Catholic social teaching, though the principle of dispersed church leadership within a structure of regional governance under quasi-autonomous bishops, prince-archbishops, kings and cathedral chapters was thriving right up until the French Revolution. Far from being a ‘new principle’, subsidiarity is a golden thread of governance woven into centuries of European religio-political history.

At the EU level, decentralisation was enshrined in Article 5 of the Maastricht Treaty which came into force in 1993, and reiterated six years later in the Treaty of Amsterdam. It became a constitutional precept of the European Union when the Lisbon Treaty came into force in 2009. The ‘Constitution for Europe’ (Article 1-11) decrees:

‘Under the principle of subsidiarity, in areas which do not fall within its exclusive competence, the Union shall act only if and in so far as the objectives of the proposed action cannot be sufficiently achieved by the Member States, either at central level or at regional and local level, but can rather, by reason of the scale or effects of the proposed action, be better achieved at Union level.’

The EU has been able to operate ‘at European level only when necessary, at national level whenever possible’ for precisely 20 years. It has chosen not to because systematic devolution or a process of ‘repatriation’ of competences runs counter to the founding principle of ‘ever closer union’, enshrined in the Preamble to the 1957 Treaty of Rome. It is a policy ratchet which was purposely designed to effect and animate social and political uniformity among member states.

I wish Lidington well with his renegotiation of our ‘new relationship’ with the European Union. I just wish he wouldn’t treat Conservative Party members like dimwits and nitwits in the process.

Tags: EU reform, Maastricht Treaty, UK politics