Austrian Minister for Home Affairs Liese PROKOP has underlined the EU Presidency's determination to pave the way for a more citizen-centred approach to decision-making in Europe, based on a fair distribution of powers and respect for the principle of subsidiarity.
Addressing the Bureau of the Committee of the Regions (CoR), meeting in the Alpine city of Innsbruck on 12 May, Mrs Prokop told members that the Presidency was committed to presenting a subsidiarity roadmap at next month's summit of EU leaders.
It would be “a choreography to show how we can pursue this debate,” she declared, adding: “We are convinced that we have to have a Europe of four levels – local, regional, national and European. If we have not got the distribution of powers right, Europe will not work. We have to pursue implementation of the (subsidiarity) principle.”
Her comments were echoed by the President of the Austrian Bundesrat, Sissy ROTH-HALVAX , who said subsidiarity resulted in greater transparency and in decisions being taken closer to the citizen. “Proper allocation of roles is essential and acceptance (of who does what) will depend on regional identity and culture being preserved,” she stressed.
The Minister's speech, coming against the backdrop of European Commission President José MANUEL BARROSO'S comments in support of subsidiarity at the joint Parliamentary forum held in Brussels on 9 May, added impetus to the debate which followed on the CoR's political and operational role in relation to the application and monitoring of the subsidiarity and proportionality principles.
CoR President Michel DELEBARRE , chairing the Bureau meeting at Innsbruck's Congress Centre, emphasised that the Committee did not have “a purely legalistic view on subsidiarity” but wanted to promote it as a “dynamic political instrument”.
“Subsidiarity means it is our duty to involve local and regional authorities via the CoR much earlier, or ‘upstream', in the European decision-making process, ” he said, adding that “sometimes that means less Europe, sometimes more, but it definitely means better Europe”.
Luc VAN DEN BRANDE , the First Vice-President, advocated that the CoR should act “proactively and pre-emptively”.
“Even without the Constitution we can move forward with the principle of subsidiarity,” he said, adding that this would help re-establish trust and confidence in the European Union. Mr Van den Brande also tabled a nine-point contribution from the EPP group in response to a discussion document presented to the Bureau by the CoR Secretary General. Amongst other things, the EPP urges the Commission and national parliaments to set up a mechanism, as soon as possible and involving the CoR, to scrutinise EU legislative proposals at a very early stage to ensure they comply with subsidiarity.
Istvan SERTO-RADICS (ALDE/HU) agreed that a more proactive approach was needed to ensure that the principle of subsidiarity was guaranteed “throughout the legislative process” and underlined that the involvement of national parliaments and the CoR in the process was essential.
Boris SOVIC (PES/SI), as well as other members of the Bureau, welcomed the planned launch of a second phase in the CoR's online subsidiarity monitoring network, following a successful pilot project between 31 October and 9 December 2005 with 21 partners. The Secretary General's paper envisages an increase in the number of participants in the next stage of the test and the CoR is due to launch a call for expressions of interest in the next few weeks.
Subsidiarity also figured strongly in a discussion on the future of public services in Europe, with many speakers stressing that local and regional authorities should have the freedom to decide for themselves whether a service of general interest (SGI) should be provided by state-owned companies or by the private sector.
Mercedes BRESSO , Socialist group leader in the CoR, stated that recent case-law had created confusion among authorities and a lack of legal certainty. “The European Commission has waited and waited and not done anything about this,” she complained. Mrs Bresso said a framework directive on SGI was urgently needed, and most members shared this view.
“Local authorities must have freedom of choice,” Edvins BARTKEVICS (UEN/LV) affirmed. “Respect the diversities that we represent” was the message from Knud ANDERSEN (ALDE/DK).
Summing up the mood, Geert JANSEN (EPP/NL) commented: “Does the Commission have to be informed about a subsidy being paid to a swimming pool or a music school? It's a bit like cracking a nut with a sledge-hammer.”
President Delebarre stressed that a framework directive was preferable to relying on the European Court of Justice to set the rules: he later reiterated calls for Community legislation on SGI in an address to the general assembly of the Council of European Municipalities and Regions (CEMR), which was held in parallel to the Bureau meeting at the same venue.
Mrs Prokop , a former regional minister for Lower Austria, also underlined the Presidency's support for a cross-border cooperation law, which would make it easier for neighbouring regions to provide joint public services such as hospitals and reduce red-tape. The CoR first mooted such a regulation in an opinion in 2000.
Cooperation with the Council
The final debate at the Bureau meeting concerned cooperation between the CoR and the Council of the European Union. Former CoR President Sir Albert BORE (PES/UK) said a more “systematic engagement”, where possible, was in the interests of both bodies. Mr Van den Brande agreed, saying that it was the essential for the Council to work with the CoR “on the basis of content rather than formalities”.
“The Committee of the Regions and local and regional authorities are not sub-contractors who carry out what is already decided: we need to exert an influence when legislation is being drafted,” he added.
Jean-Paul JACQUÉ , director of the Council secretariat's legal service, agreed on this point, saying the timing of the CoR's input in the decision-making process was crucial. “The earlier the CoR gets in on the process, the better. The Council would like you to come in earlier … before the Commission makes its proposal,” he concluded.
The CoR Bureau members were welcomed to Innsbruck by city Mayor Hilde ZACH and the President of Tyrol, Herwig VAN STAA , a CoR member.
The principle of subsidiarity explained
The application of the subsidiarity principle aims to ensure that decisions in Europe are taken at the most appropriate, effective level and as close to the citizen as possible. It is a dynamic concept which makes it possible to extend action by the Community, within the limits of its powers, when circumstances require, and, conversely, to limit or stop such action when it is not justified.
Article 5 of the Treaty establishing the European Community provides the legal basis for subsidiarity and a protocol annexed to the Treaty of Amsterdam
sets precise criteria for this, stating that Community action is justified only when:
- the question has trans-national aspects which cannot be satisfactorily regulated by national measures (necessity test I );
- national measures alone or lack of Community action would conflict with the requirements of the EC Treaty or would otherwise significantly damage Member States' interests ( necessity test II);
- action at Community level would provide clear benefits compared to national measures (clear benefit test).
Click here for Bureau documents :
The application and monitoring of the subsidiarity and proportionality principles: The Committee of the Regions' political and operational role
CoR study on public services
Cooperation between the Committee of the Regions and the Council of the European Union
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