Interpreting Subsidiarity – How to develop into a constitutional principle?


  • Samantha Gernat



The principle of subsidiarity is clearly one of the most ambiguous and disputed notions of European Union (EU) law. What started with the intention to create a simple mechanism that allocates competences to the Member States’ or EU level, in order to ensure that the level of government, best suited to pursue the task decided, so that legislation was enacted as close as possible to the citizens, ended in confusion. Since the question of allocation is inherently political it was quite unclear how much of a legal component was embedded in the principle. The low efficiency of the principle in reality is primarily due to the European Court of Justice’s (ECJ) failure to provide for a clear legal definition of it. In fact, it has never annulled a measure on grounds of subsidiarity and generally reviews the principle marginally and cautiously. Without the threat of annulment, the Commission has been careless in its justification for subsidiarity compliance of a legislative proposal. In order to enhance control, the Treaty of Lisbon has introduced an ex ante review of compliance by national parliaments (NP).8 Although this can potentially protect national ‘territory’ from a competence creep, the review’s full potential cannot be harnessed if lack of a uniform and efficient principle remains. Nevertheless, an interpretation of subsidiarity is also ultimately a question of governance as both relate to the issue of how the powers of the EU and the Member States should be applied. Even if a proper definition is found, should it be the EU or the Member States who decide to whom competence should be allocated? Is it the Member States, because they have conferred the powers in the first place or the Union due to its supranational character? As a consequence, this paper will address the question of how the principle of subsidiarity should be interpreted in order to form a workable mechanism that ensures an effective divide between EU and Member States’ competence?    


Primary Souces:

Commission decision to withdraw the Proposal for a COUNCIL REGULATION on the exercise of the right to take collective action within the context of the freedom of establishment and the freedom to provide services - COM(2012) 130.

Chairmon of the Working Group I on the Principle of Subsidiarity Members of the Convention; Conclusion of Working Group I on the Principle of Subsidiarity, 23 September 2002.

European Scrutiny Committee; Subsidiarity, National Parliaments and the Lisbon Treaty. 33rd Report of Session 2007-08.

SEC(2009) 92 – European Commission – Impact Assessment Guidelines, January 2000.

Including practical arrangements for the operations of the subsidiarity control mechanism under Protocol No.2 of the Treaty of Lisbon.

José Manuel Barroso; Political Guidelines for the next Commission, September 2009.

Deutscher Bundestag Protokoll der 8. Sitzung des Rechtsausschusses – Unterausschuss Europarecht; Öffentliches Expertengespräch zum Thema: Prüfung des unionsrechtlichen Subsidiaritätsprinzips. Vorsitzender Dr. Patrick Sensburg – 16th June 2010.

Working Group 1 on the Principle of Subsidiarity 2002, Subject: Making the Subsidiarity operational – paper by Mr. Hannes Farnleiter and Mr. Reinhard E. Bösch, 12 August 2002.

Subsidiarity and Proportionality Report 2010, COM(2011)344.

Andrea Biondi, ‘Subsidiarity in the Courtroom’, in: Biondi et al., (Eds); The EU after Lisbon. New York: Oxford University Press, 2012.

Deborah Z. Cass; The Word That Saved Maastricht? The Principle of Subsidiarity and the Division of Powers within the European Community’, Common Market Law Review 29, 1992, pp.1112-1116.

Damian Chalmers; European Union Public Law – Cases and Materials. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010.

Simona Constantin; Rethinking Subsidiarity and the Balance of Powers in the EU in Light of the Lisbon Treaty and Beyond. Croatian Yearbook of European Law and Policy (4), 2008, pp.151-177.

Ian Cooper; The Watchdogs of Subsidiarity: National Parliaments and the Logic of Arguing in the EU. Journal of Common Market Studies 44 (2), 2006, pp.281-304.

Ian Cooper; A ‘Virtual Chamber Third Chamber’ for the European Union? National Parliaments after the Treaty Of Lisbon. West European Politics 35 (3), 2012, pp.441-465.

Paul Craig & Gráinne De Búrca; EU Law – Text, Cases, And Materials. 5th edition. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.

Gareth Davies; Subsidiarity: The Wrong Idea, in the Wrong Place, at the Wrong Time. Common Market Law Review 43, 2006, pp. 63-84.

Alan Dashwood; The Relationship between the Member States and the European Union/European Community. Common Market Law Review 41 (2), 2004, pp.355-381.

Gráinne De Búrca; The Principle of Subsidiarty and the Court of Justice as an Institutional Actor. Journal of Common Market Studies 36 (2), 1998, pp.217-234.

Nicholas Emiliou, ‘Subsidiarity Panacea or Fig Leaf?’ in: David O’Keeffe & Patrick Twomey (Eds); Legal Issues of the Maastricht Treaty. Chichester: Chancery Law Publishing Ltd, 1994.

Antonio Estella; The EU Principles of Subsidiarity and its Critique. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.

Frederico Fabbrini & Katarzyna Granat; The Yellow Card, but no Foul: The Role of the National Parliaments under the Subsidiarity Protocol and the Commission Proposal for an EU Regulation on the Right to Strike. Common Market Law Review 50, 2013, pp.114-144.

Barbara Gustaferro; Reframing Subsidiarity Inquiry From and “EU Value Added” to and “EU Non-Encroachmen” Test?: Some Insights from National Parliaments Reasoned Opinion. Working Paper Serien – School of Government Luiss Guido Carli.

Jörgen Hettne & Frederic Langdal; Does Subsidiarity Ask the Right Question?. Think Global . Act European Part VIII – Institutional Innovations.

Thomas Horsley; Subsidiarity and the European Court of Justice: Missing Pieces in the Subsidiarity Jigsaw? Journal of Common Market Studies, 2011, pp.1-16.

Margot Horspool & Matthew Humphrey; European Union Law. 7th edition. Gasport: Oxford University Press, 2012.

Philipp Kiiver; The conduct of subsidiarity checks of EU legislative proposals by national parliaments: anaylsis, observations and practical recommendations. Europäische Rechtsakademie Forum, 2011.

Mattias Kumm; Constitutionalising Subsidiarity in Integrated Markets; The Case of Tobacco Regulation in the European Union. European Law Journal 12 (4), 2006, pp.503-533.

Gary W.L. Low; European Contract Law between the Single Market and the Law Market – A Behavioural Perspective. Nijmegen: Wolf Legal Publishers, 2011.

Giuseppe Martinico; Dating Cinderella: On Subsidiarity as a Political Safeguard of Federalism in the European Union. Working Paper No.2/2010, Institut de Dret Públic – Universitat de Barcelona.

Paul D. Maruqardt; Subsidiarity and Sovereignty in the European Union. Fordham International Law Journal 18 (2), 1994, pp.616-640.

Maria Teresa Paulo; National Parliaments in the EU: after Lisboa and beyond subsidiarity – the (positive) side-effects and (unintended) achievements of the Treaty Provisions. OPAL Online Paper No.5/2012.

Stefanie Rothenberge & Oliver Vogt; The “Orange Card”: A fitting Response to National Parliaments’ Marginalisation in EU-Decision-Making. Paper prepared for the Conference “Fifity Years of Interparliamentary Cooperation”, 13 June 2007, Bundesrat, Berlin, organised by the Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik.

Robert Schütze; Subsidiarity after Lisbon: Reinforcing the Safeguard of Federalism? Cambridge Law Journal 68 (3), 2009, pp.525-536.

Alexander H. Türk; Judicial Review in EU Law. Cheltenham: Edward Elgar Publishing Limited, 2009.

Tom van den Brink, ‘The substance of subsidiarity: the interpretation and meaning of the principle after Lisbon’ in: Martin Trybus & Luca Rubini (Eds); The Treaty of Lisbon and the Future of European Law and Policy. Cheltenham: Edward Elgar Publishing, 2012.

Josephine van Zeben; Subsidiarity 2,0? Competence Allocation in EU Environmental Law. Not yet published.

Stephen Weatherill, ‘Competence and European Private Law’ in: Christian Twigg- Flesner (Eds); Cambridge Companion on European Union Private Law. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010.

Stephen Weatherill; The Limits of Legislative Harmonization Ten Years after Tobacco Advertising: How the Court’s Case Law has become a “Drafting Guide”. German Law Journal 12 (3), 2011, pp.827-864.

Derrick Wyatt & Alan Dashwood; European Union Law. 6 th edition. Oxford: Hart Publishing, 2011.

Internet sources:

Christian Calliess; Schriftliche Stellungnahme zum öffentlichen Expertengespräch des

Unterausschusses Europearecht des Rechtsausschusses des Deutschen Bundestages

zum Thema Prüfung des unionsrechtlichen Subsidiaritätsprinzp, Berlin, 2010

Retrieved via


(last visited 26-06-2013)

European Parliament website on ‘subsidiarity’. Retrieved via:

(last visited 26-06-2013)

Reasoned Opinions (all last visited 09.07.2013):

Proposal for a Council Regulation on the right to take collective action within the

context of the freedom of establishment and the freedom to provide services

Reasoned Opinion Dutch Tweede Kamer retrieved via

Reasoned Opinion Swedish Riksdag retrieved via

Reasoned Opinion Polish Sejm retrieved via

Reasoned Opinion Maltese House of Representatives retrieved via

Reasoned Opinion Luxembourg Chambre de Députés retrieved via

Reasoned Opinion Latvian Saeima retrieved via

Reasoned Opinion Danish Folketinget retrieved via

Reasoned Opinion Finish Eduskunta retrieved via

Reasoned Opinion UK House of Commons retrieved via

Reasoned Opinion Portuguese Assembleia da República retrieved via

Reasoned Opinion Belgian Chambre des Représentants retrieved via

Reasoned Opinion French Sénat retrieved via

Common European Sales Law:

Reasoned Opinion Austrian Bundesrat retrieved via

Reasoned Opinion Belgian Sénat retrieved via

Reasoned Opinion German Bundestag retrieved via

Reasoned Opinion UK House of Commons retrieved via