The principle of subsidiarity is defined in article 5 - lisbon treaty on european union.

The principle of subsidiarity is defined in Article 5 - Lisbon Treaty on European Union. It is in place to regulate the exercise of powers of the EU. The intention is that the EU should be making decisions with regard to the citizen, and action should not be taken unless it is more effective to take it at EU level rather than national, regional or local level or if the matter regards something for which the EU has responsibility.

The subsidiarity principle was introduced by the Treaty of Maastricht and was further elaborated in a Protocol on the application of the principle attached to the Treaty of Amsterdam. Today, the principle is defined in Article 5 TEU:

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. National Parliaments ensure compliance with the principle of subsidiarity in accordance with the procedure set out in that Protocol.

According to this principle, the EU would only make laws where the action of individual countries is insufficient. The EU operates ‘at European level only when necessary, at national level whenever possible’

Member states and the UK for one see subsidiarity as a means of protecting themselves against excessive EU intervention. Along with the principle of proportionality it limits the powers of the EU to use its powers only to achieve the objectives set out in the Treaties. Subsidiarity and proportionality are fundamental principles which should be applied across EU activity, to ensure the EU acts only when necessary, that action takes place at the lowest level possible, and that the means are proportionate to the end.

The new Treaty of Lisbon, as it entered into force on 1 December 2009, requires the principle of subsidiarity to be respected in all draft EU law and allows national parliaments to object. Representatives of EU member countries flag up any EU laws failing to respect subsidiarity and the 2009 Lisbon Treaty created what has become known as the 'yellow card' system allowing draft laws to be vetted and blocked.

The Protocol on the application of the principles of subsidiarity and proportionality lays down three criteria aimed at establishing the desirability of intervention at European level:

  • Does the action have transnational aspects that cannot be resolved by Member States?

  • Would national action or an absence of action be contrary to the requirements of the Treaty?

  • Does action at European level have clear advantages?


The Principle of Subsidiarity - European Parliament Protocol (No 2) on the application of the principles.

National parliaments show 'yellow card' to EU law on strikes

Five things you need to know about the Maastricht Treaty

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