European Law Monitor

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What is the Principle of Proportionality & Subsidiarity?

The principle of proportionality and subsidiarity is extremely important because it underlies everything the European Union does in areas where it does not have the right of exclusive competence.

In plain English it means that the EU should not get involved in matters which do not concern it.

The official version runs as follows:

"1. The limits of Union competences are governed by the principle of conferral. The use of Union competences is governed by the principles of subsidiarity and proportionality.

2. Under the principle of conferral, the Union shall act only within the limits of the competences conferred upon it by the Member States in the Treaties to attain the objectives set out therein. Competences not conferred upon the Union in the Treaties remain with the Member States.

3. Under the principle of subsidiarity, in areas which do not fall within its exclusive competence, the Union shall act only if and in so far as the objectives of the proposed action cannot be sufficiently achieved by the Member States, either at central level or at regional and local level, but can rather, by reason of the scale or effects of the proposed action, be better achieved at Union level.

The institutions of the Union shall apply the principle of subsidiarity as laid down in the Protocol on the application of the principles of subsidiarity and proportionality.

4. Under the principle of proportionality, the content and form of Union action shall not exceed what is necessary to achieve the objectives of the Treaties. (Article 5 of the Treaty on European Union)

What this means in practice is that the European Commission must justify the relevance of any proposals against the principle, and in fact, when proposals go to the European Parliament committees it is one of the first tests they consider.

If you feel that a proposal is just another example of over regulation, i.e. it is entirely disproportionate, then you may have strong grounds for opposing it on the grounds of proportionality.

Equally, if you believe that the issue being addressed by the legislation is not trans-european, and should therefore be addressed by individual Member States then again you might have grounds for opposition on the grounds of subsidiarity.

See also the article "What arguments can I use" in our How Do I section.