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The EU Water Framework Directive: Rule by Decree, MLG or Something In-Between?

Open Panel

Abstract

Multilevel governance (MLG) analyses of European integration are frequently optimistic about its impact on democratic decision-making procedures. The awareness that more polymorphous decision-making frameworks operate in the context of policy output and implementation seems enough to warrant heralding a new age of increased regional and local decision-making autonomy. Others however are tempted to see the upward transfer of policy-making competence (from local to regional /national, or from national to EU-level) as representing a loss in democratic responsiveness, leading in particular to a sense of declining policy legitimacy. Policy-making effectiveness and efficiency are likewise questioned. For some, the potential for increased efficiency and effectiveness represents the driving force behind the upward transfer of policy authority. For others, the upward delegation of decision-making authority necessarily removes important decision-making powers from those closest to and most knowledgeable about local needs and interests, thereby undermining the likely effectiveness and efficiency of policy output. Few provide adequate analytical frameworks for testing these hypotheses. This paper introduces an evaluative framework that facilitates a more dynamic analysis of the EU Water Framework Directive (WFD, and presumably other EU policy innovations). The two key features in the evaluative framework are change in policy approach over time (across EU and national levels) and analysis across the multiple constitutive elements of individual policies (in this case the EU WFD). This approach facilitates a broad overview of the degree of change and thus policy innovation the EU WFD represents, as well as of procedural changes in decision-making practice. The EU WFD represents a significant policy innovation, greatly increasing the potentially effectiveness and efficiency of water management strategies. However, despite the attention in the WFD (Art. 14) to democratically legitimizing participatory frameworks—in particular at the large catchment basin level—it is above all the WFD’s more centralizing tendencies that appear to define its real innovative power and potential effectiveness. In this particular case, EU integration and the policy innovation arising out of it provides opportunities for some new actors to gain center stage in policy-making, but weakens the role and opportunities of others. In this regard, the particular impact of European integration appears to be its ability to shift the relative balance of power across individual actors. Though the outcome is not explicitly democratizing, European integration may occasionally provide opportunities for improving policy-making efficiency and effectiveness. At least with the EU WFD, this seems to be the case.