Rhetoric or Reality? ‘New Governance’ in EU Environmental Policy

DOIhttp://doi.org/10.1111/j.1468-0386.2006.00323.x
Published date01 May 2006
Date01 May 2006
Rhetoric or Reality? ‘New Governance’
in EU Environmental Policy
Katharina Holzinger, Christoph Knill and Ansgar Schäfer
Abstract: When scrutinising the literature on EU environmental policy, it becomes appar-
ent that there has been a comprehensive transition in underlying governance ideas during
the last two decades. At the core of these changes is the abolition of traditional patterns of
interventionist command-and-control regulation in favour of economic instruments and
‘context-oriented’ governance. In view of these developments, this article has two objectives:
first, it looks into which causes and factors initiated these discussions; second, it analyses the
effects these reform ideas had on actual patterns of governance. As will be shown, changes in
governance ideas are only partially expressed in changes in policy instruments.
I Introduction
When scrutinising the literature on environmental policy in the European Union, it
becomes apparent that there has been a comprehensive transition in underlying gover-
nance ideas since the beginning of the 1990s. Authors are talking of ‘new instruments’
(Héritier, 2002) or even of the ‘transformation of the environmental governance in the
EU’ (Lenschow, 1999). At the core of these changes is the abolition of traditional
patterns of interventionist command-and-control regulation in favour of ‘context-
oriented’ governance, emphasising close cooperation of public and private actors in
the formulation and implementation of EU environmental policy.
The great scientific resonance that this reform development has found ought not,
however, blind us to the fact that there was already a broad discussion of environmental
governance in the 1980s; this was primarily dealt with in environmental economics and
at the level of international organisations (OECD, 1981b). This earlier discussion was
less concerned with context-oriented forms of governance, but with introducing eco-
nomic instruments, which were considered substantially more efficient than interven-
tionist measures.
Against the background of these developments, this article has two objectives: first,
it looks into which causes and factors initiated these two mentioned discussions;
second, it analyses the effects these reform ideas had on actual patterns of governance
in the EU. To what extent and in which direction do new governance ideas actually
result in the adoption of new policy instruments?
If one considers the various action programmes in which the strategic orientation of
the EU environmental policy is defined for the middle term, a relatively sound finding
regarding underlying governance ideas becomes apparent. The political demands for
European Law Journal, Vol.12, No. 3, May 2006, pp. 403–420.
© 2006 The Authors
Journal compilation © 2006 Blackwell Publishing Ltd, 9600 Garsington Road, Oxford, OX4 2DQ, UK
and 350 Main Street, Malden, MA 02148, USA
1OJ C 46 17/02/83.
both economic instruments and context-oriented forms of governance are very clearly
reflected in the governance ideas formulated in the individual action programmes.Both
in the mid-1980s and at the beginning of the 1990s, an explicit paradigm change in reg-
ulatory policy was demanded in the respective programmes; this came to expression in
formulations about ‘second-generation’ instruments or ‘new governance approaches’.
This change in governance ideas, however, is only partially expressed in changes in
concrete instruments introduced in EU environmental law. The discrepancy between
political declarations in the action programmes and their actual implementation is espe-
cially obvious with respect to economic instruments. However, the introduction of
context-oriented instruments has increased relatively little, as well, measured on the
political demands. Interventionist instruments still constitute the dominant form of
environmental governance in the EU.
The observation is not new that, at the state level, economic instruments in environ-
mental policy are much discussed, but seldom put into practice (Holzinger, 1987;
Opschoor and Vos 1989). For the EU-level, however, no analysis of this has yet been
undertaken. There have been a few studies about the context-oriented instruments (e.g.
Héritier, 2002). These do not deal specifically with environmental policy, however.
There has not yet been a comprehensive assessment of the use of instruments in the
environmental policy of the EU.
In the following section, we first analyse the reception of economic and context-
oriented governance ideas in the various environmental policy action programmes,
and investigate the causes favourable to these wide-reaching changes. Building upon
this, in third section we explore whether and to what extent the changes in governance
ideas have affected the choice and the allocation of policy instruments. The fourth
section is dedicated to the explanation of the empirical findings. The general outcomes
resulting from this analysis are summarised in the final section.
II The Call for ‘New Instruments’: Changes in Ideas and Conditions of
Governance
EU environmental policy developed as a policy area in its own right form the early
1970s onwards. Initial policies of the Community were primarily command and control
instruments, implying a highly interventionist governance approach (Rehbinder and
Stewart, 1985, chapter IV). Since the mid-1980s, however, new governance ideas have
appeared which aim at re-orienting the choice of environmental policy instruments.
Two strains are to be differentiated: beginning in the mid-1980s the EU Commission
advocated ‘economic incentive instruments’, such as environmental taxes, tradable
permits, or risk liability schemes. At the beginning of the 1990s, primarily ‘context-
oriented instruments’ were suggested. These aim to leave the Member States more dis-
cretion in the implementation, to include the addressees in policy formulation and
enforcement, and to prescribe administrative procedures rather than substantial out-
comes to be achieved.
AGovernance by Economic Incentives
The introduction of economic instruments was first proposed in the third environ-
mental action programme of the Community (1982–1986).1 The fourth action pro-
European Law Journal Volume 12
404 © 2006 The Authors
Journal compilation © Blackwell Publishing Ltd. 2006

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