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1In the past decades, research on public policy has shown that beyond the process of decision-making – that legendary, and often deceptive, weapon of political leaders critiqued by Lucien Sfez [1] – a polity can also be analysed through institutions and organisations, through the activities of governments, including public policies and the methods of their implementation, based on instruments, budgets, practices, norms and standards. These dimensions are sometimes technical and often dissociated from the political game. Yet, the rationales at work in the choice and selection of the modalities of public policy instrumentation, like other processes of implementation or evaluation, are deeply political both in their elaboration and in their effects. [2]

2This paper is built around the concept of public policy instrumentation, and contributes to a broader debate on the restructuration of government in contemporary societies analysed through its techniques and instruments. [3] Instrumentation is “the set of problems posed by the choice and use of instruments (techniques, methods of operation, devices) that allow government policy to be made material and operational”. [4] Generally, instruments are analysed as one of the variables in the implementation of a given public policy. [5] More recently, there has been a growing body of literature on “new instruments” supposed to characterise “new modes of governance”, in particular at European level. [6] The most systematic analyses are presented as typologies [7] and their empirical backbone mostly consists of in-depth case studies. [8]

3What can systematic, longitudinal analysis of the instruments used in a public policy sector tell us both about that specific public policy and about the transformations of the modes of governance in contemporary societies? If new public policy instruments are used, a sound methodological approach is not to wax lyrical about the “new instruments” of “new governance”, but instead consists in putting them into perspective, studying how they combine with existing instruments and assessing forms of change on the basis of systematic analyses of policy devices and their political dimension.

4Our contribution proposes empirical answers based on the case of European policies. [9] In the specific political and institutional context of the EU, [10] an approach in terms of the competences formally inscribed in the treaties is insufficient to account for the emergence and the development of stable and autonomous public policy at European level. [11] Here, we make the hypothesis that European public policy can be analysed and sometimes explained through its instruments, regardless both of its original objectives and of the division of competences between the European Union (EU) and member states. Defined as “a device that is both technical and social, that organises specific social relations between the state and those it is addressed to, according to the representations and meanings it carries”, [12] instruments are a particular type of institution, and produce long-term structuring effects. [13] The rationales at work in the elaboration, selection and integration of EU instruments may partly explain the transformations of European public policy and perhaps more broadly of the European system. [14]

5Comparative and systematic analysis of the instruments of EU environmental and urban policies between 1972 and 2006 shows to what degree, through which mechanisms and with which effects, instruments have structured the emergence and the development of these two European policies. To what extent does the analysis of the forms of instrumentation, i.e. the choice and combination of instruments, explain the emergence and the development of a public policy? Is the instrumental approach a fruitful one to account for the evolution of the forms of public policy steering favoured within the EU? We will first outline the contribution of the instrumental approach to the study of the transformations of European public policy, and then present the conditions of the empirical identification of the instruments. Lastly, we will conduct a comparative analysis of the choices and combinations of instruments in environmental and urban EU policies. To conclude, we will show that the analysis of the forms of instrumentation of European public policy contributes to a refined understanding of how the EU’s steering capacity works.

Public policy instruments and European governance

6Studying the transformations of European public policy through its instruments is a not a new approach in itself. A significant range of studies has focused on the relationship between the diversification of European public policy instruments and the transformation of modes of governance in Europe. Drawing from evolutions observed for instance in the sector of environmental policy, these studies have provided a detailed account of the apparition, in the early 1990s, and of the subsequent multiplication of “new” public policy instruments, mostly information-, consultation-and incentive-based. [15] They ultimately show that this proliferation can be mainly explained by the limitations of traditional public policy instruments (taxes and laws). Their shortcomings are generally assessed on the basis of efficiency and transparency criteria, in both the decision-making and implementation process. In this analysis in terms of “new governance”, at the risk of underestimating the structuring role of power relations, these authors show that public policies are less organised by sector and less structured by the relationships between relevant social groups. They also explain that the emergence of weakly binding public policy instruments at European level, such as voluntary agreements, citizens’ conferences, labels, etc. results from the balance of power that characterises relations between the various European institutions and the different government levels.

7These conclusions tie in with those of authors who have focused on the “new” modes of governance (NMGs). [16] The multiplication of these non-hierarchical modes of regulation is not a specifically EU-related phenomenon; it can also be observed in measures taken by other supranational organisations (OECD, IMF) and at national level following distinct modalities and temporalities. [17] At European level, they have been attempts at defining a new perspective between two approaches: integration or mere cooperation. [18] This perspective aims at addressing specific issues of coordination in areas where European public policy is challenged. There have been increasingly numerous examples in the past few years, such as the convergence of European academic systems, known as the Bologna Process. [19] This is also the case of the Open Method of Coordination (OMC), whose goal is to achieve a convergence of national policies by regularly producing reports on a number of policies and performance indicators to point out differences, single out “bad European pupils”, and to provide the impetus for the changes expected by the European Commission (with no other form of constraint involved). [20]

8Yet, these studies suffer from a number of limitations, which we will only briefly outline here. The first limitation pertains to these authors’ often functionalist conception of public policy instruments, defined as “the myriad of techniques at the disposal of governments to implement their policy objectives”. [21] On the basis of this shared definition, several different conceptions of the choice and selection of public policy instruments have been developed, relating to the preferences of decision-makers which themselves are determined by the various degrees of social acceptability of different possible combinations of instruments.

9A second set of limitations pertains to the fact that these studies tend to favour an analysis in terms of the legitimacy of outputs, rather than inputs. [22] The authors implicitly support the idea that the introduction of “new” instruments is a (virtually automatic) channel of change in public policy, measured on the basis of two elements: the efficiency of the measures introduced and the democratisation of the processes of elaboration and implementation of public policy. [23] Their analysis also introduces a causal relationship between failures in the implementation of the policy objectives analysed and the types of instruments selected. The emergence and the multiplication of “new” public policy instruments, such as voluntary agreements, benchmarking, [24] citizens’ conferences, [25] etc., based on mobilising and enlisting stakeholders very early in the decision-making process, are seen as a way to meet the challenges of the implementation of European public policy and as a response to the prevailing discourse on the EU’s “democratic deficit”. [26]

10Lastly, a third set of limitations of these studies concerns the relationship between public policy instruments and the European governance system, insofar as the authors tend to overestimate the novelty of these “new” instruments and, more broadly, the EU’s capacity for instrumental innovation. These studies overlook the role played by the conflicts that occur during the processes of elaboration, selection and integration of these instruments into the existing devices. Their focus on “new” public policy instruments, especially in fields where EU intervention remains challenged or constantly changing, causes them to disregard current evolutions in more traditional European public policy areas, such as the Common Agricultural Policy or regional policy. [27] Similarly, the focus on instrumental innovation leads them to underestimate questions related to the permanence of “old” instruments, their transformation, [28] the combination of “old” and “new”, and their medium-term effects on the dynamics of European public policy. [29]

11Yet a finer analysis of the instruments used in certain European policies shows that they largely result from processes of diffusion and transfer from member states or other supranational organisations. [30] Can European policies be reduced to the sum of the instruments imported from member states, however? Though their empirical results cannot be generalised to apply to all European public policies, these studies show that, in a context of multi-level governance, the choices and combinations of instruments are largely informed by forms of instrumentation favoured at other public policy levels. Hence, the evolution of European public policy instruments largely results from the diffusion, the transfer and the rearrangement of pre-existing elements, which raises specific questions of sedimentation, inertia and change, possible contradictions and growing demands for coordination.

Analysing the sedimentation of instruments through the development of databases

12To address these questions while moving beyond the limitations we have identified, we have developed databases liable to provide empirical evidence on the basis of a systematic and relatively exhaustive analysis of all the instruments used within the framework of a given sectoral policy, since the inception of that European policy. We have chosen two contrasting areas of European policy. The first one is environmental policy, a long-term area of EU intervention in various forms. The second is urban policy, conversely a field where EU intervention has been weak and contested. The following analysis thus relies on two units of analysis: the instrument and the public policy sector. The extent of their combination delineates the boundaries of the field in which data is collected. The following paragraphs will explain this approach further.

13As defined in our introduction, instruments are a specific type of institution, which affect the evolution of the actors’ behaviours and representations; their choice is neither neutral nor systematic, and they produce long-term structuring effects. The choice of this unit of analysis is first and foremost a means to avoid some of the methodological and analytical pitfalls of European public policy analysis, particularly in terms of its comparison with national public policy [31] or even the handling of certain issues at international level. [32] The choice of a comparative analysis of two policy areas with contrasting trajectories also allows us to question the classic criteria used to account for the trajectories of development of European public policy (legal, budgetary and organisational criteria). In other words, the emergence of specific forms of instrumentation at European level serves as a medium for delimiting the environmental and urban policy sectors.

14Lastly, this approach differs from research that seeks to give a thorough account of EU activities, [33] or even to assess the degree of Europeanisation of public policies. [34] By systematically inventorying the instruments of EU environmental and urban policies since their inception, we are able to identify medium-term instrumentation patterns and to analyse their respective trajectories.

Identifying and classifying instruments in the medium term

15The longitudinal approach to instruments and their evolution is liable to nuance discourses in terms of innovation and to highlight conflicts in terms of representations and interests occurring as instruments are elaborated, selected and integrated, within the pre-existing repertoires of instruments.

16For each of the instruments identified for these purposes – 53 for environmental policy and 33 for urban policy – we have filled out a detailed information sheet that provides an in-depth presentation of their origins, their main features, and in particular of the evolutions of the techniques and tools with which they may have been combined, [35] and of the various stages of their careers. The tables presented in this paper list the instruments used in the two policy areas, or at least those we have identified. These instruments were then classified according to the typology proposed by Pierre Lascoumes and Patrick Le Galès, who distinguish five categories of instruments on the basis of their relation to the polity. [36] The following table presents this typology.

Table 1

Typology of public policy instruments

Table 1
Type of instrument Type of relation to polity Type of legitimacy Legislative and regulatory Social guardian state Imposition of a general interest by mandated electoral representatives Economic and fiscal Wealth producer, redistributive state Seeks benefit to the community; social and economic efficiency Agreement- and incentive-based Mobilising state Seeks direct involvement Information- and communication-based Audience democracy Explanation of decisions and accountability of actors De facto and de jure standards; best practices Adjustments within civil society; competitive mechanisms Mixed: scientific-technical, democratically negotiated and/or competition, pressure of market mechanisms

Typology of public policy instruments

17This paper relies on a systematic analysis of all the instruments used within the framework of a given sectoral policy since their inception. The box below elaborates on our approach to the identification and classification of the instruments of these two European policies.

Identifying and classifying public policy instruments

Our study is based on two necessarily arbitrary choices of classification of instruments, derived from a pre-existing typology, to develop databases. The identification of instruments and of their medium-term evolution has been made on the basis of primary sources (archives, grey literature, regulatory documents) and secondary sources in both policy fields. [37] In some cases, we have complemented this analysis with a set of semi-directive interviews that are not used in this paper. Although our approach seeks to be comprehensive, we are aware of its limitations: in such a context, by publishing lists of instruments per sector, we hope that they can be further refined and improved in the process. Additionally, the classification of the instruments according to the categories of the above-mentioned typology, while generally pertinent, entails, as always, difficult choices. Choices on the characterisation and classification of a number of instruments that combine several dimensions are not entirely stabilised. The analytical distinction between instruments, techniques and tools sometimes comes up against differentiated empirical phenomena of embedding and superposition that produce long-term structuring effects. [38]

A comparative approach to the choice and combination of instruments

18The comparative analysis of the forms of instrumentation favoured at European level enables us to account for their sui generis effects on policy objectives and on the forms of production and legitimisation of the EU’s environmental and urban public policies. Comparing the fields of environment and urban policy is justified first and foremost by significant similarities. Their development is relatively recent – these policies date back to the early 1970s, which made it possible to identify instruments systematically. The European institutions’ handling of environmental and urban issues has been challenged for a long time, due to the extreme complexity of these issues, but also to the high degree of fragmentation of the interests concerned, and to the lack of recognition of a formal EU competence in these areas; also, in the case of urban policy, in the name of the principle of subsidiarity. Lastly, in each of these two policy areas, the emergence and multiplication of “new” public policy instruments has been particularly intense (see Graph 1), with the stated objective of making the decision-making system more democratic and including civil society actors.

Graph 1

Comparative evolution of environmental and urban EU public policy instruments

Graph 1

Comparative evolution of environmental and urban EU public policy instruments

19Despite these similarities, these policies have followed contrasting trajectories, judging from the observation of the criteria traditionally used to characterise the degree of autonomy of a public policy (formal competence, budget, organisation). In this respect, environmental policy appears to be one of the key areas of EU intervention. [39] This European policy area, which benefited from an autonomous administration and budget from very early on (1973), is characterised by a high degree of institutionalisation of the forms of cooperation between stakeholders in its development. Since 1972, more than 580 texts have been adopted, covering a growing number of activities and contributing to the global improvement of the level of environmental protection. [40] Conversely, EU urban public policy has experienced a different trajectory and can today only be termed embryonic, in contrast with the development of other European policies and of the member states’ urban policies. [41] The EU’s competence on urban issues was not formally recognised by the treaties and the European Commission’s urban unit (1993) never expanded. This EU policy area is thus characterised by a low degree of institutionalisation, ambiguous objectives and uncertain competences.

Inheriting and importing: the EU’s choice of instruments

20As analytical units, public policy instruments enable us to make an in-depth and comparative analysis of the boundaries of European public policy, regardless of the objectives and competences formally inscribed in the treaties. The analysis of the instruments’ origins, developed in the third part of this paper, evidences the choices and combinations of instruments made at this government level. These forms of instrumentation have structured the development of both policy areas under review. EU environmental policy is primarily structured by its instruments. The longitudinal analysis of their evolution since 1972 shows that this policy area is saturated with instruments, which is why many authors have emphasised innovation and the invention of new instruments in their sectoral studies. However, our database shows that these instruments are very largely borrowed from other government levels (national, supranational). Conversely, in the urban field, despite several attempts at instrumental innovation and specific action plans, the evolution of public policy instruments reveals a low level of autonomisation compared to the instruments of EU regional policy. At odds with the phases traditionally identified in the literature on the development of this policy field [42] on the basis of the evolution of representations linked to urban issues, the instrumental approach shows that their submission to the EU regional policy repertoire has hindered the stabilisation of these issues and the development of an autonomous public policy.

21We will analyse the two sectors successively, in each case emphasising the choice and combination of instruments on the one hand, and their effects on the development of European public policy on the other.

The European Union’s environmental policy: accumulation and transfers of instruments

22As a result of our analysis of the origins of the EU’s environmental public policy instruments (see Table 2), we can first provide a detailed explanation of the existence of a multi-level decision-making system, and of the EU’s limited capacity for instrumental innovation. Then, we show that the choice and combination of instruments sometimes contribute to extending the scope of EU intervention, which does not necessarily translate into a reinforced role for the Commission in relation to member states.

Table 2

List of EU environmental policy instruments[43][44]

Table 2Table 2
Legislative and regulatory instruments Date Origin Directive (common market) Communication Directive (environment) Framework Directive Resolution Decision Environmental Treaty Zoning (species) Notification (products) Regulation Directive (environmental procedure) Authorisation (activity) Derogation Authorisation (GMO) Authorisation (substances) Zoning (management) Authorisation (products) 1967 1971 1976 1976 1978 1980 1974 1979 1979 1981 1983 1984 1988 1990 1991 1991 2001 EURATOM Rome Treaty (Art. 100 & 235) 2nd EAP1 + Art. 100 2nd EAP + Art. 100 International law (+ US) International law International law International lax Sub-national (France) International law 3rd EAP + Art. 235 Sub-national (France) Derogative principle (Single EU act) Pollution control Pollution control Sub-national (France) Pollution control (IPPC) Economic and fiscal instruments Date Origin Fiscal incentives Pollution charges Quotas (natural resources) Public subsidies Burden-sharing Import quotas (substances) Carbon tax (project) Emissions trading Non refundable public subsidies 1970 1975 1983 1984 1988 1989 1990 2003 2000 Polluter pays principle Sub-national (West Germany) International law 3rd EAP International law International law Sub-national (Denmark) Sub-national (Denmark) & international (US) International law & EU development policy Agreement- and incentive-based instruments Date Origin Registration (products)2 Observation network Monitoring network Voluntary Agreements (VAs) (self-regulation) Codes of conduct Monitoring mechanism Environmental agreements VAs (co-regulation) 1967 1978 1987 1988 1991 1993 1993 1998 International law International law International law International law Agriculture International law Sub-national Pollution control Information- and communication-based instruments Date Origin Labelling (substances) Consultative forum Information network Information procedure Labelling (GMO) Eco-label Packaging label Consultation conference Mapping 1967 1974 1978 1990 1990 1992 1994 1996 2002 International law International Sub-national Information principle Chemicals Sub-national (Germany, Sweden, France) Sub-national (Denmark) Information principle Sub-national De facto and de jure/best practice Date Origin Source standards (Emission) Environmental quality standards Target standards (biological) Standardised methods Product standards Best available technology Environmental Impact Assessment Eco-Audit Energy certification Reference documents (BAT) 1970 1973 1973 1973 1975 1976 1985 1993 1993 1996 Sub-national (West Germany) Sub-national Sub-national Sub-national Sub-national (West Germany) Sub-national EU Sub-national (UK) Sub-national (UK) Sub-national (UK)

List of EU environmental policy instruments[43][44]

23The evolution of EU environmental public policy instruments since 1972 (Table 2) first shows that this policy field is characterised by a particularly high number of instruments: 53. This first finding confirms the EU’s activism in the field, a feature that is frequently emphasised in the literature. [45] But the analysis of the origins of public policy instruments also shows the EU’s limited capacity for instrumental innovation in a then-emerging field, which is our second finding. Apart from a few cases of instrumental innovation, such as the Emission Trading Scheme, EU environmental public policy instruments are derived from processes of diffusion and hybridisation across government levels and sectors (see also Graph 2). [46]

Graph 2

Origin of EU environmental public policy instruments

Graph 2

Origin of EU environmental public policy instruments

24Hence, over the entire period under study, more than two thirds of the instruments (34) were developed, or imported, on the basis of choices made at international level (international agreements, international environmental law, non-EU national projects) and/or in member states. Therefore, according to our data, choosing an instrument to implement European public policy is generally importing an instrument that exists at international level. The instrumental analysis confirms the structuring role of the processes of diffusion and transfer of instruments from national environmental policies on the development of European public policy in the field. The influence of French policy on legislative and regulatory instruments, and of West German and then UK policy on de facto/de jure good practices, [47] is particularly noteworthy. [48]

25Despite what has been written on their novelty, roughly a third of the instruments (16) were mobilised following a process of reorganisation of pre-existing instruments at European level, on the basis of experience from other public policy fields (agriculture, chemical products) or other sub-sectors of environmental protection, in particular pollution control – one of the first issues addressed at EU level and whose instruments were then re-used to deal with other environmental issues.

26The findings of our analysis of the origins and evolution of EU environmental policy instruments clearly raise a challenge to the relevance of the distinction between “old” and “new” public policy instruments in analysing the transformations of EU environmental policy. Between 1972 and 1986, although regulatory instruments were favoured (12), they were introduced in combination with other types of instruments enabling the centralisation of information on a number of environmental issues, either to monitor dangerous substances in the EU (product labelling and registration), or to exchange information and expertise on issues for which EU intervention is strongly contested (follow-up, information networks), such as marine pollution (a theme we will discuss later in this paper).

27The EU’s activism and the dynamics at work in the selection of the instruments can first be explained by the contested character of EU policy in the field until the formal recognition of its environmental competence in the Single Act. Focusing on the initial 1972-1986 period allows us to explain the different facets of this instrumental activism. During this period, 28 instruments were adopted at European level, including 18 imported from other government levels. The recourse to these instruments in favour elsewhere conferred a degree of legitimacy on the proposals made by European institutions on environmental protection – the EU acted either as a conveyor of international environmental law, or as a channel for the harmonisation of measures taken by member states on environmental protection during the same period. This left states and economic interest groups, organised by sector, with a large amount of leeway to get actively involved in the elaboration of these standards, and, at national level, in their implementation.

28Lastly, the choice of regulatory instruments, particularly favoured over this period (see Graph 3), also conferred a formal legal basis on the environmental measures taken at European level. The initial lack of legal basis of EU environmental policy elicited numerous referrals to the Court of Justice. [49] The rulings issued on these occasions have led to the progressive development of a jurisprudence in environmental matters (which is not an instrument), with two main effects: first, a general principle of “environmental protection” was established; secondly, the external competence of the European Commission in environmental matters, i.e. the right to participate in international negotiations with third party countries, [50] was asserted.

29Overall, the choice of regulatory instruments has enabled European institutions, and the Commission in particular, to bypass political and institutional barriers and assert the environmental competence of the EU and its policies.

Graph 3

Instrumental activism and environmental competence of the EU (1986)

Graph 3

Instrumental activism and environmental competence of the EU (1986)

30The longitudinal analysis of EU environmental policy instruments shows, however, that legislative and regulatory instruments were combined with less binding instruments throughout the period under review. These innovating forms of instrumentation have, on the one hand, contributed to the extension of the EU’s environmental competence and, on the other, structured the European integration process.

31The initial choices favouring the combination of directives or framework directives and standards contributed to the institutionalisation of a two-tier system of actors, in which national actors and interests play a key role, be it at European level during the phase of implementation of framework directives, or at national level during the transposition of a European regulation or of its implementation in national law. This approach is thus largely disconnected from the objectives and principles of action, which remain contradictory and based on differentiated representations of environmental protection and sustainable development issues. Over the long term, the adoption of different types of standards largely inspired by choices made at national level (West Germany then UK) had more long-lasting structuring effects on the development of EU environmental public policy. First, mirroring observations made by Wyn Grant [51] on the Common Agricultural Policy, the EU’s environmental public policy can be increasingly thought of as the sum of the member states’ environmental policies. Hence, some of the effects identified result from the generic dimension of the instruments, and can accordingly be observed in other political systems. Second, these initial choices have structured forms of mobilisation and representation of actors and interests in the European decision-making process, in particular economic interest groups. Organised by sector, the latter are actively involved, at European level, in the elaboration of these standards and their respective parameters, and at national level in their implementation. Thirdly, this approach combining different types of standards contributed, when they were transposed to national law and implemented, to reinforcing national approaches in environmental protection matters, as the example of pollution control shows.

32The association of this approach, which combines standards and directives or framework directives with more binding techniques and tools, then contributed to the restructuration of this first form of instrumentation. More precisely, the degree of constraint ascribed to these techniques and tools can be explained either from a legal perspective, with the control exerted by the Court of Justice, or from a political perspective, with the setting up of monitoring systems which included non-sectoral actors and interests. Their introduction aimed at bypassing inertia and sedimentation effects related to the institutionalisation of a two-tier system of actors. The generalisation of the so-called “best available technology” technique, of impact assessments, audits, energy certifications and reference documents, all inspired by national (particularly UK) regulation, contributed to reinforcing the European institutions’ steering capacity in matters of environmental public policy, especially the European Parliament and the Court of Justice. [52]

33Lastly, the introduction of “new” environmental policy instruments, observed since 1972 but heightened during the recent period, was initially justified by the objective of reinforcing and structuring citizens’ rights and the freedom of access to information on the environment. [53]

34Over the long term, it provided the impetus for a process of centralisation of information, data and expertise at European level, first to the benefit of the European Commission. More precisely, in fields where European intervention was non-existent or very underdeveloped, economic interest groups, national administrations and local authorities were encouraged to pass on information about the use of dangerous products and substances, or on various sources of pollution, such as industrial plants. Initially voluntary, these incentives were combined with reporting and measurements of pollution or of the danger posed by the substances or products concerned, with two types of effects. On the one hand, this form of instrumentation contributed to structuring these information and data flows, so that they could be aggregated at European level. On the other hand, and on a more long-term basis, it directly enabled the reorganisation of forms of participation and representation of interests at European level, and the structuring of favoured repertoires of action, to the benefit of expertise and lobbying. [54] The combination of instruments such as classification, labelling, mapping or information networks contributed to this process of centralisation of information and expertise.

35In some cases, such as chemical products and GMO, this comprehensive dataset constitutes a preamble to the implementation of binding regulation on the use, circulation and marketing of products with suspected or actual effects on health. [55] Yet, and in the majority of cases, this process of centralisation of information and expertise has not systematically resulted in a strengthening of the European Commission’s steering capacity, particularly due to the creation of specialised agencies, such as the European Chemicals Agency. [56]

36The analysis of the differentiated roles of information and observation networks in the fields of marine protection, forestry and fishery exemplifies the structuring role of this form of instrumentation based on the combination of incentive-and information-based instruments (see Table 2), although it shows its limitations in terms of the autonomisation of European public policy. Thus, an information network was introduced in 1978 in the field of marine protection and later extended to the fishery sector in order to facilitate the aggregation of data on the pollution of natural resources and environments. Later still (1987), these information networks were linked to monitoring networks, which are incentive-based instruments. As public policy instruments, these information and monitoring networks were introduced at European level to ensure the transposition of international law [57] and limit the introduction of more binding forms of regulation on these issues. Depending on the degree of politicisation of these issues at European level, these information and monitoring networks were combined with binding procedures, for instance registration in the case of fishery, or more flexible ones, such as exchange of data on marine pollution. Their more or less binding character partly explains that, in the case of fishing, these networks acted as a prelude to the development of an integrated and autonomous policy in the field, contributing to the apparition of opportunities for stakeholders in the process and to the stabilisation of the representation of this issue. [58] In the field of marine pollution, however, due to the low degree of constraint of the instrument’s procedural dimension, and the mobilisation of the stakeholders, this combination of instruments only acted as a channel for the centralisation of information at European level.

37In the forestry sector, the evolution of European intervention, based on the combination of an information network and a monitoring network, shows how this form of instrumentation hindered the development of a European policy. In the absence of international legal incentives, only an information network was introduced at European level in the early 1980s, and binding European regulation only targeted forest pollution resulting from the activity of large combustion plants, i.e., conceived as an industrial pollution issue. The monitoring network was meant as an incentive for member states to monitor their forests on a regular basis, but this process facilitating the exchange of information and data (European Forest Information and Communication System), without aiming at their centralisation, was placed under the aegis of an organisation that guarantees the competence of member states on forest protection (the Standing Forestry Committee). Forest fires were also regularly placed on the European agenda, in a specific context of politicisation due to the fires in southern Europe. First, an information network was set up and introduced with the 1981 enlargement, acting as an incentive for member states to take preventive measures against forest fires. With new regional policy opportunities, this first European intervention was extended in 1986, with the introduction of a monitoring network with binding effects. From its inception, the latter was combined with an economic and fiscal instrument, enabling the funding of preventive measures at national level, and progressively with two other types of instruments: a range of standardised methods (good practice) and information campaigns on forest fires.

38The combined analysis of the evolution of EU environmental public policy instruments and of their origins thus shows that few of them are specifically European and that they have been characterised by their diversity since 1972 – and even more so since the mid 1990s. The EU’s instrumental activism in the environmental field does not so much result from its capacity for instrumental innovation as from its tendency to import instruments developed at other government levels to increase its legitimacy in the field. The instrumental approach thus explains the paradox of the status of the EU as a leading force in the development of national environmental policies, even though its influence on the choice and selection of the instruments remains weak. [59] In other words, the diffusion and transfer of EU environmental policy instruments have arguably been a marginal phenomenon in the processes of Europeanisation of national policies in the sector. [60] This finding should however be refined with the comparative analysis of the evolution of the member states’ environmental policies. [61]

39EU environmental public policy is saturated with instruments, which raises specific issues of sedimentation and coordination that are now partly resolved. More precisely, our instrumental approach shows that the EU’s competence and steering capacity in the environmental field are (still) regularly challenged: EU environmental policy is more structured by its instruments than by its objectives or results; a situation that contrasts sharply with that observed in the urban policy field.

European urban policy: the constraint of regional policy instruments reveals a lack of autonomy

40EU urban policy has a long history of failed institutionalisation. The EU has no specific competence in the field, but the urban question has been a key concern of numerous working groups and parliamentary committees since at least the early 1960s. [62] This policy can be primarily characterised by its objectives: [63] over the past 50 years, urban policy has always been presented, formalised and justified on the basis of three normative and cognitive frames. The first, historically, emphasises the risks of urban concentration in a perspective of urban planning and in a context of inequality between regions, while stressing the economic productivity of the major urban centres and their capacity for development. The second frame, which appeared in the 1970s, emphasises environmental questions, quality of life, pollution and resource consumption issues related to cities; this was all reframed in terms of sustainable development in the 1990s. Lastly, the third frame is structured around the urban crisis issue, the decline of the major industrial cities and ports in Europe. Priorities have varied with time but overall, since the 1980s, urban policy programmes have always combined these three elements. Policy objectives are economic development, the renewal of urban areas and cities in crisis, and sustainable development. These objectives tend to be rather broad, not always very precise and relatively stable over the long term, i.e., since the first “integrated operational programmes” implemented in Naples and Belfast after 1978.

41These objectives only provide a very general characterisation of this policy, and give no indication of its dynamics. The analysis of the instruments is liable to give us more precise elements to address its transformations (see Table 3).

Table 3

List of EU urban public policy instruments

Table 3Table 3
Legislative and regulatory instruments Date Art. 92.2 (b) & (c), Art. 92.3 of the Treaty of Rome Additionality Regulation (regional policy) Operational programmes Criteria for the designation of zones Criteria for eligibility (poverty indicators) Zoning Single programming document Regional development plans Community support framework National strategic reference framework Regulation (State aids) 1957 1975 1988 1989 1989 1989 1989 1993 1993 1993 1993 1997 Mainstreaming 1997 Economic and fiscal instruments Date European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) European Social Fund (ESF) JESSICA JEREMIE 1975 1975 2006 2006 Agreement- and incentive-based instruments Date Integrated development operations Co-financing Partnership Multi-annual programming Urban pilot projects 1978 1989 1989 1989 1990 Information- and communication-based instruments Date Concerted research project (on the growth of large urban concentrations) Networks for exchanging good practice Guidelines Consultative forum (Vienna) Urban audit Vade mecums, aide-memoires URBACT Citizens’ conference Leipzig Charter on Sustainable European Cities 1978 1990 1993 1998 1998 1999 2003 2005 2007 De facto and de jure/best practice Date Monitoring procedures Evaluation indicators 1988 1993

List of EU urban public policy instruments

42Urban policy is essentially characterised by two types of instruments: on the one hand, a range of regulatory devices set up in the late 1980s and early 1990s; on the other, a wide array of information-and communication-based instruments complemented by a broader choice of other instruments. The origins of these two categories are quite different.

43Regarding the first type of instruments, their origin is fairly clear: they all come from European regional policy. European urban policy has developed in its footsteps, by experimenting with, deviating from or making exceptions to the rules and instruments of regional policy. [64] The first urban policy instruments and the main instruments for intervention were those of regional policy, of ERDF regulation such as additionality, multi-annual programming, eligibility criteria, zoning or partnerships. There was very little instrumental innovation, and for good reason. After the experimental period of 1979 and 1980, urban policy started to take shape when the Commission decided to support cities. Jacques Delors and his regional policy commissioner Bruce Millan negotiated an ERDF regulation allowing for experimentation, [65] thus paving the way for an array of programmes that came to constitute a burgeoning urban policy. This innovation resulted notably in the creation of an urban unit within the Directorate for Regional Policy, initially informal and subsequently formalised in 1993. This unit was put in charge of the instrumentation of regional policy, but faced across-the-board hostility from the Directorate of Regional Policy, where in particular Spanish actors and interests prevailed. Instrumentation indeed often reflects political power struggles. These actors, and the representatives of other member states who benefited from the regional policy, were concerned that urban policy might serve as a pretext to divert funds from the cohesion policy for regions lagging behind away from their intended recipients – primarily Spain, Greece and Ireland – to the benefit of metropolises in crisis, mostly located in Northern Europe. Other states, such as Germany, contested the legitimacy of Community intervention in this field, in the name of the subsidiarity principle. Alleging the EU’s lack of competence in the field and despite pressure from the Parliament, the Directorate-General of Regional Policy closely monitored the implementation of urban policy.

44The instrumentation of urban policy was therefore constrained. The choice of instruments was limited; only those from the cohesion policy were accepted, with a few twists, deviations and adjustments. Urban policy initially had no autonomy, which is reflected in the choice of its instruments.

45Regarding the second type of instruments, instruments selected on a more experimental basis concern information and communication with citizens, such as consultative forums or citizens’ conferences. They have limited effects. This dynamic is particularly clear in the instrumental innovation of the recourse to article 10 of ERDF regulation enabling experimentation. The Commission uses this article to fund numerous networks of local authorities, neighbourhoods and cities, which in turn become stakeholders in the development of this policy. These instruments first aim at formalising, codifying, diffusing and legitimising urban renewal projects in Europe, as well as promulgating the methods and priorities that have emerged within the European framework. Lastly, these instruments enable the production and comparison of data, either in networks for exchange on these projects, or through the production of systematic indicators, as in the case of urban audits, in order to compare situations, to make European cities more “readable”. [66]

46The combination of instruments adapted from the cohesion policy and of others selected on a more experimental basis structures the evolution of EU urban policy and explains the limits of its autonomisation.

47EU urban policy was institutionalised in the late 1990s, through instruments such as support to networks of cities like Eurocité, the URBAN programme instruments, the Urban Forum or the Urban Audit. These instruments primarily aim at producing information, standardising criteria and categories, highlighting projects in order to apply them to other settings, structuring networks and mobilising supporters of this urban policy. Despite this activism in the introduction of new instruments, the fact remains that everything relating to implementation and funding relies on the instruments of regional policy. These highly visible instruments of mobilisation and information enable the enlisting of stakeholders in urban coalitions and allow for systematic comparisons of the evolutions of European cities and the highlighting of emblematic urban renewal projects. [67] The Commission’s urban unit asserted itself as a key actor through the centralisation of data production, the legitimisation of urban strategies with the European label, and the development of benchmarking of national urban policies. Yet, these instruments contributed little to the implementation of public policy programmes that transformed cities, with the exception of the URBAN programme.

48In 1994, the creation of the URBAN programme conferred a new dimension on EU public policy, and acted as a flagship of that policy (see Graph 4). It combines traditional regulatory instruments and more limited instrumental innovations. The urban unit created within the Commission in the preceding year set up this public policy programme on the basis of several national projects. As in the case of the environment, the Commission combined the results of its own experiments with local projects developed in countries such as France and the UK.

49The URBAN programme was first based on the French “contrats de ville” project, and on the City Challenge in the UK. [68] These “contrats de ville”, a flagship instrument of Rocard’s socialist government’s urban policy, coordinated actions and investments at the level of the urban agglomeration. They were negotiated by the Minister for Cities, the prefect and the mayor; the contracts had rather broad objectives and their medium-term perspectives were not always very clearly or precisely evaluated. Their goal was to fight the crisis in urban areas, in a perspective of urban social development. Then, roughly at the same time, the second main inspiration of the URBAN programme was developed in Britain. The City Challenge programme relied on a competitive call for projects, and the mobilisation of public and private resources in a very detailed yearly contract that favoured economic development and steering through performance indicators. Lastly, the URBAN programme was influenced by the Urban Pilot Projects initially developed almost in secret by the Commission in 1989 in London and Marseilles, two cities in crisis that were not eligible for regional policy funding (then objectives 1 and 2). [69] Urban Pilot Projects made use of the instruments of regional policy (such as additionality) to contribute to the renewal of city areas. Following the initial experiments, the instrument was more widely implemented: 33 projects were launched in the early 1990s.

Graph 4

Instrumental activism and URBAN programme (1994)

Graph 4

Instrumental activism and URBAN programme (1994)

50The URBAN I and URBAN II programmes resulted from a compromise aiming at mobilising French and British instruments, the experiments of the first urban programmes and some Italian projects, combining them with the traditional instruments of EU regional policy: zoning, additionality, partnership, and multi-annual programming. In policy terms, the URBAN I programmes (1994-1999, 800 million ecus, 118 projects) had classic objectives of economic, social and environmental development, but they were justified in terms of innovation, effectiveness and citizen participation. This combination of instruments was used again for URBAN II (2000-2006) with roughly similar criteria, producing differentiated effects on the treatment of urban issues in member states and the development of national urban policies. [70]

51The elaboration and the implementation of the URBAN programme were also structured by the dynamic of instrumentation that characterises this policy field, with a combination of policy instruments relating to cohesion and others selected on a more experimental basis. The most notable innovation consisted of demanding from applicant cities that they develop a rhetoric of innovation, to promote “innovative” urban renewal projects, “innovative” approaches, “innovative” modes of governance. The Commission’s urban unit thereby put itself in a position to grant labels, to progressively codify the strengths and weaknesses of URBAN programme projects, and to rely on networks of cities and experts involved in the programme. The creation of the URBACT exchange programme in the early 2000s exemplifies the systematic aspect of this approach. [71]

52The remaining instruments mobilised in urban policy come from regional policy, including JEREMIE and JESSICA, instruments of financial support to economic development developed with the European Investment Bank. Lastly, the adoption of mainstreaming as an urban policy instrument, consisting in replacing specific urban programmes by a general priority to urban matters in EU programmes, is not very original: mainstreaming had already been applied to both environmental and gender policy. [72]

53Thus, in the urban field, the most important and effective instruments remained strictly those of regional policy. Even if they were reinterpreted or manipulated, this frame considerably limited the institutionalisation and autonomy of urban policy. In order to free itself from these chains, the Commission introduced numerous instruments of mobilisation and coordination to enlist actors, and form a coalition of potential political supporters. But the effects of these “new instruments” remained limited. In terms of the dynamic, the EU urban policy can be seen as the result of pressure in favour of its institutionalisation from the Parliament, the Council of European Municipalities and, progressively and cautiously, the European Commission. However, the absence of a specific EU competence in the field has regularly elicited the opposition of member states. This policy thus emerged in a slightly clandestine manner, based on the negotiation of exceptions to the rule. The first experimental programmes were set up in the early 1980s, and after 1989, this policy experienced a strong institutionalising dynamic that led several authors to forecast the advent of an overarching EU urban policy symbolised by the European Urban Agenda published in 1999. [73] The analysis of the instruments and their origin shows why this policy was subsequently and progressively so easily marginalised, and gives insights into a valuable example of failed institutionalisation.

54The analysis of the origins and of the evolution of EU public policy instruments over the past three decades shows that original and specific combinations of instruments, techniques and tools have been developed at European level, thus contributing to the emergence of differentiated forms of instrumentation. Their analysis shows that these innovative forms of instrumentation contribute, first, to the extension of European competences, and second, to the structuring of the European integration process.

55In both policies under review, the choice of instruments reveals two dynamics of instrumentation, sometimes embedded in time. The first, particularly visible in the environmental field, consists of the combination between uniform standards and directives; over the longer term, this form of instrumentation produces undesired effects, insofar as it contributes to the stabilisation of a two-tier system of actors. The second is characterised by the introduction of “new” policy instruments, justified in the name of the democratisation of the decision-making process, in combination with control devices that mobilise other types of actors. The comparative analysis of this second form of instrumentation over the long term shows that ultimately, it has contributed little to the steering capacity of the EU institutions, particularly the European Commission, in these fields. This mobilisation of actors and interests, mainly structured around networks of heterogeneous actors, shows the limitations of a form of instrumentation aiming at enlisting and mobilising actors for the development of an autonomous public policy. [74] The intensity of the phenomena of emergence and multiplication of “new” public policy instruments contributes to this process of enlisting and mobilising actors other than governmental and business actors, i.e., the elusive “European civil society”. Particularly central in the urban field, this form of instrumentation, which relies on a combination of incentive-and information-based instruments, contributes to legitimating EU action in a field where it has no formal competence, to maintaining existing networks, and to conducting multiple experiments as “guerrilla operations”. In the environmental field, this form of instrumentation has been continuously present since the origins of Community intervention in the field, but it does not have the same degree of centrality as in the urban field.

56Beyond the structuring role of these original combinations of different forms of instrumentation in the development of EU urban and environmental public policy, the choice and selection of public policy instruments structure the European integration process. More precisely, public policy instruments constitute a mode of allocation of resources and competences, thus encouraging the reorganisation of the relationships between European institutions and states, as well as between the European institutions themselves. In the case of environmental policy, the evolution of the forms of instrumentation contributes to the institutionalisation of a two-tier system of actors and interests, in which the European Commission’s steering capacity in the field of environmental public policy remains limited. In the case of urban policy, the evolution of the forms of instrumentation explains the fact that EU public policy in the field has remained embryonic and essentially organised at national and infra-national level.

Conclusion: No autonomous public policy without ad hoc instruments?

57The analysis of the development of European policies through their instruments yields insights into these policies and elements of interpretation on the transformations of European public policy and on the European integration process. We will now emphasise two aspects of our analysis: the first relates to comparative analysis and the second to the systematic and longitudinal analysis of the instruments of a public policy sector. Finally, we will review the contribution of the comparative approach to identifying the role of instrumentation as a key variable in the dynamic of institutionalisation of a sector.

58The comparative analysis of the forms of instrumentation selected at European level first allows us to account for the effects related to their own logics on policy objectives and on the forms of production and legitimisation of EU environmental and urban public policy. To what extent and in what ways do forms of instrumentation, i.e. the choice and selection of instruments, structure the development of EU public policy? What are its effects, and how does the evolution of the forms of instrumentation contribute to the restructuration of European integration dynamics? The EU institutions’ treatment of environmental and urban issues has been contested for a long time, due to the extreme complexity of these issues, but also to the high degree of fragmentation of the interests involved, and to the lack of recognition of a formal EU competence in these fields; and regarding urban policy, in the name of the subsidiarity principle. The exploration of new areas of competence or the extension of competences to new issues in an existing public policy field entails forms of instrumentation that enable experimentation, the enlisting and mobilisation of new actors and interests, as well as the collection and centralisation of information. This innovation can be explained by the need for the Commission offices involved in these two policies to bypass existing rules, to make their action visible for reasons of legitimacy, and mobilise coalitions, or even political support bases. The evolution of the forms of instrumentation, and particularly, the increasingly frequent recourse to “new” instruments, results both from the Commission’s strategic capacity and from its weaknesses.

59Secondly, the systematic and longitudinal analysis of the instruments of a public policy sector partly explains the transformations of public policy. Our analysis of the evolution of the forms of instrumentation of EU environmental public policy indeed shows the limited long-term impact of the “new” public policy instruments and of instrumental innovation. In both cases under review, the systematic priority granted to the “new instruments” of European public policy does not appear justified. In both cases, instrumental innovation is combined with more traditional devices. These two types of public policy are characterised by the combination of instruments; not by the new instruments used as such. The choice and selection of instruments reveal the low steering capacity of the EU institutions. With instruments mostly borrowed from other political systems in the environmental field, and from other sectors in the urban field, European public policy even appears, in the environmental case, as the sum of the national policies in the field. The choice and selection of instruments made since the origins of EU intervention have had long-term effects of sedimentation and inertia. In the urban field, the importation of regional policy instruments has strongly hindered institutionalisation despite the political visibility. In the environmental field, the integration of these original forms of instrumentation combines with existing techniques, as the emission trading scheme has recently exemplified. Paradoxically, the latter is an unprecedented instrumental innovation both in this public policy sector and on a global scale; its integration into the range of existing instruments has structured the concrete modalities of implementation and market access. The recourse to grandfather rights, rather than, for instance, auctioning, has largely contributed to the long-term establishment of a mode of allocation of resources benefiting the relevant sectoral interests.

60But more generally, this paper’s approach, consisting in analysing the development of EU policies through the emergence and combination of original forms of instrumentation shows the long-term structuring effects of the choice and selection of instruments originally made. Comparison reveals different effects in the two sectors. In the environmental field, there are three particularly significant types of effects: saturation related to the importation of instruments from other political systems; inertia related to the institutionalisation of a two-tier system of actors; innovation related to the diversification of the range of available instruments. On the other hand, the case of urban policy shows how difficult it is for an autonomous public policy sector to emerge when instrumentation is constrained by another sector that imposes its instruments.

61Our comparison suggests that instrumentation is a key variable of the dynamic of institutionalisation of a sector. The lack of an autonomous capacity for instrumentation acts at least as a factor that makes the development of a policy less likely. Dynamics of change observed over the long term show the structuring role of the forms of instrumentation on the modes of allocation of resources between the actors in the European integration process. In the environmental field, where the EU is particularly active, the forms of instrumentation initially favoured have contributed to the institutionalisation of a two-tier system of actors, characterised by the structuring role of states and national regulation styles. This common policy has neither developed uniformly across Europe, nor equally according to the environmental issues. In the urban field, the lack of autonomy in terms of instruments has not made institutionalisation possible, a weakness that caused the rapid marginalisation of European urban policy after 2006. Comparative analysis questions the capacity of European institutions to develop an autonomous public policy in the absence of ad hoc instruments.


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This article explores the link between policy instrumentation and policy change at the EU level. It is based on a comparative analysis of policy instruments and their development in European urban and environmental policies. The analysis is based on an original dataset, retracing the evolution of European policy instruments in both areas over the past three decades, and asks how and by whom they were chosen and combined. Challenging the existing literature on new policy instruments and new forms of EU governance, our longitudinal analysis indicates that the traditional focus on new or innovative policy instruments is of limited explanatory power. Our approach shows how EU policies and policy-making are informed by the politics of choice and the combination of policy instruments.

Charlotte Halpern
Charlotte Halpern is a FNSP tenured research fellow in political science at the PACTE research unit in Grenoble. She teaches at Sciences Po in Grenoble and in Paris. Recent publications include: (with Claire Dupuy) “Les politiques publiques face à leurs protestataires”, Revue française de science politique, 59(4), 2009, 701-22; “La politique européenne de l’environnement” in Renaud Dehousse (ed.), Les politiques européennes (Paris, Presses de Sciences Po, 2009), 205-26; “The politics of environmental policy instruments”, West European Politics, 33(1), 2010, 39-57. She is currently working on a book on the transformation of the role of the state in a comparative perspective at European level, focusing on the analysis of conflicts around public decisions in matters of transport and environment, and of the instruments of environmental and urban public policies (Pacte – Politique & Organisations, IEP de Grenoble, BP 48, 38040 Grenoble cedex 9, France
Patrick Le Galès
Patrick Le Galès is a CNRS Director of Research and teaches at the Centre d’Etudes Européennes of Sciences Po Paris. His recent publications include: (with Gilles Pinson) “Local/regional governments and centre-periphery relations in the Fifth Republic”, in Andrew Appleton, Sylvain Brouard, Amy Mazur (eds), The French Fifth Republic at Fifty: Beyond Stereotypes (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009), 208-25; (with Göran Therborn), “Cities”, in Stefan Immerfall, Göran Therborn (eds), Handbook of European Societies (Dordrecht: Springer, 2010), 59-89; “Governing cities” in Gary Bridge, Sophie Watson (eds), Handbook of Cities (London: Sage, 2010), 746-58; (with Hussein Kassim, eds), “Exploring governance in a multilevel polity: a policy instruments approach”, special issue of West European Politics, 33(1), 2010; (with Florence Faucher-King) The New Labour Experiment (Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 2010); (with Desmond King), “Sociologie de l’état en recomposition”, special issue of the Revue française de sociologie, 52(3), 2011. He is currently working on a book for Wiley-Blackwell about senior executives and European cities (Centre d’Études Européennes, Sciences Po, 28 rue des Saints-Pères, 75007 Paris, France
Translated from French by 
Jean-Yves Bart
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