Brexit: The role of subsidiarity

29 June 2016 | by Philip Booth


Britons who voted ‘out’ complained that the EU was too centralised. If Brussels had not ignored a key Catholic principle, the result of the referendum might have been very different

It is well known that Catholicism informed the creation of the European Union. In later years, too, the faith of the Commission President, Jacques Delors, was hugely important as he directed the process that ultimately led to the Maastricht Treaty. It is widely thought that Delors’ Catholicism led him to promote the Social Chapter, which was said to be influenced by his interpretation of the Catholic social teaching concept of “solidarity”.

Another concept from Catholic Social Teaching also found its way into the Maastricht Treaty – the principle of “subsidiarity”. This was supposed to put a check on centralisation within the EU. It would be difficult to argue, however, that the principle had much practical effect. If subsidiarity had influenced the EU’s relationships with member states, the referendum result might have been different. So what went wrong? Why did the principle of subsidiarity not protect us from centralisation?

Firstly, the principle is not properly expressed in the EU treaties. In 1931, Pope Pius XI expressed it in his encyclical Quadragesimo Anno in this way: “It is an injustice and at the same time a grave evil and disturbance of right order to assign to a greater and higher association what lesser and subordinate organisations can do.”

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