Features > Brexit: The role of subsidiarity

29 June 2016 | by Philip Booth

Brexit: The role of subsidiarity


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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User Comments (2)

Comment by: John of Seattle
Posted: 02/07/2016 21:35:53
This vote has caused many of us here to be attentive. Our Democrat presidential candidate, Bernie Sanders, and the Republican candidate, Donald Trump, each has caused individuals who are outside the established order of our two great party's to support them. Yes, one towards supposed socialism and the other to something like a naïve nationalism. Your vote seems to us to be akin to these political attractions if defined as a rejection of established order and manners of operations. If Mrs. Clinton happens to be indicted anytime soon, we will not hear the last of Mr. Sanders. And, Mr. Trump will likely, contrary to most public thought, beat Mrs. Clinton if she remains in the race.
Comment by: AusMike
Posted: 01/07/2016 17:58:49
An excellent piece, thank you Philip.
It is a fascinating principle, subsidiarity. And one that is not often applied, because of the lack of discipline among both the leaders and the led in our society.
You rightly identified the failing of the EU, and many governments around the world, to respect the appropriate levels of decision making.
Politicians of many varieties seem all too willing to interfere, whenever someone calls for the government to "do something about (insert the latest crisis)".
This trend is also very true of the church, where both legal authority and personal influence have been centralised in Rome and the personhood of its bishop, over many centuries and especially in the latter half of the 20th century under the Wojtylla papacy.
I wonder if this principle is one the Roman Catholic Church needs to relearn from it's brothers and sister of the reformation, in this forthcoming 500th anniversary of the reformation?
It might just be the beginning of a new ecumenism, especially if the current pope's obvious and genuine humility can infect others in Rome.
It would be wonderful if both church and state, the latter especially in the form of the EU, could learn this lesson from the recent British vote.

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