Illusions of Unity

But before raising your glass to a newly unified Europe, consider the following comments of Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi.

“Nobody, I repeat nobody, can think they can put us under their control or worse still, treat us as a subject with limited sovereignty,” he said in a speech to the Italian parliament, responding to the resignation of his pro-Europe foreign minister. The pundits cried foul, but Berlusconi knew exactly what he was doing. He understands that demands for national sovereignty, not withstanding the euro and the EC, are as intense now as ever, and possibly more so in the aftermath of the new currency.

And that fact raises alarm bells. The word nationalism is 20th-century European history is inseparable from belligerence, conflict, and even catastrophe. Where the pundits go wrong is in believing that the alternative to nationalism is the centralized bureaucracy and political consolidation. The dream of a united Europe, one held to by Europe's finest statesman and intellectuals, is not identical to an ambition to transfer all political power from national capitals to Brussels.

Now is the time to reflect on a word that rests at the core of the vision of European unity: subsidiarity. It is found in Article 3B of the Maastricht Treaty: “in all 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.”

Savvy observers of the European political scene credit Article 3B with providing the crucial level of public support to bring Europe to its present state of integration. It said, in effect, that the central power will only be used when absolutely necessary but otherwise all competence will be presumed to rest with the member state.

But that is not how the EC has carried out its aims thus far, or how many partisans of Europe currently understand the term. Instead of placing the burden on the EC to demonstrate it superior competence to the member state, it places the burden back on the state whenever it discovers areas of regulation that it believes can be better enacted and supervised by the center.

This skewed view of what constitutes “subsidiarity” reverses its meaning. The term itself derives from the Catholic tradition, explicitly with the Pope Pius XI in his encyclical Quadragesimo Anno (1931), where he wrote: “those in power should be sure that the more perfectly a graduated order is kept among the various associations, in observance of the principle of subsidiary function, the stronger social authority and effectiveness will be, the happier and more prosperous the condition of the State.”

The principle was not new with Pius XI. The idea of dispersing authority throughout society appears throughout the entire Thomist branch of Catholic political thought. Pope John Paul II has elevated subsidiarity to a high principle in his encyclicals, and overtly expanded it to apply not only to relations between states but to all institutions in society. It was the Maastricht Treaty that introduced the term into common usage.

But if subsidiarity guarantees member sovereignty in its area of competence, what is the point of unity? That is a question that has been asked far too little during the many decades in which the idea of a European Union has been discussed. The proper goal is captured in another term that serves as the second pillar of Catholic society teaching: solidarity. It recognizes the unity of interest of people who strive after similar goals, among which are peace, security, prosperity, and the general thriving of culture.

The goals of solidarity are perfectly compatible with subsidiarity provided that we choose the proper means. An improper means is the crushing of national and local political culture, and the micro-regulation of all members states from an accountable and far-away political apparatus. The attempt to do this can only create backlash of the kind that may be brewing right now. It paradoxically leads to disunity.

The proper means are all those institutions that so excited liberals of the 18th and 19th century: mutually beneficial trade, cultural exchange, freedom of migration, and free-flow of ideas. All of that can take place without constant intervention from the European Union; it is a function of cooperation of all public and private sectors within member states. In other words, the goals of both subsidiarity and solidarity are consistent with the general idea of freedom.

What Berlusconi is warning against, and swearing to resist, is something that the old dreamers of a united Europe similarly opposed. Unity achieved through coercion and central management is a false unity. True unity comes about by recognizing the principle of subsidiarity, the very principle that Maastricht highlighted as a solemn pact with its members. If the backers of Europe are serious about creating a lasting union of states, they need to stop decrying those express the justified fear that the EC doesn't take its own principle seriously enough.

This article, which originally appeared on National Review Online, is a product of the Acton Institute —, 161 Ottawa NW, Suite 301, Grand Rapids, MI 49503 — and is reprinted with permission.

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