Research Agenda for a Polycentric European Union

47 Pages Posted: 6 May 2013

Date Written: May 5, 2013


Vincent Ostrom, Charles Tiebout and Robert Warren first considered polycentricity in the context of U.S. metropolitan reforms in the 1960s. Since then polycentric governance – governance through systems that are composed of many centres of decision-making, which are formally independent of each other – has become a reality in many societies, not least in the European Union. Polycentric theory has continued to develop within the Bloomington School led by Vincent and Elinor Ostrom, making important theoretical and empirical contributions to the study of non-monocentric governance systems. Ostrom’s polycentricity encompasses governance models such as federalism and multi-level governance, adding a normative layer based on the importance of self-governance of individuals. In the on-going constitutional debates regarding the European Union and its future, the democratic deficit and ‘elite’ nature of the European project are often cited but solutions to these (highly politicized) problems remains elusive and methodologically underdeveloped. This article shows the potential of polycentricity as ‘outside’ option for the development of the European Union, juxtaposed with further European centralization and renationalization of powers. This is the first comprehensive attempt to incorporate legal questions into polycentric theory and to apply it to the European context. This article concludes with a research agenda for a polycentric European Union, based on the centrality of European citizens and their self-governance. Among other things, polycentrism can provide a basis for a more substantive application of the subsidiarity principle within the EU context.

Keywords: European Union, polycentricity, subsidiarity, self-governance, democracy, Vincent Ostrom

JEL Classification: K30, K33, D70

Suggested Citation

van Zeben, Josephine A. W., Research Agenda for a Polycentric European Union (May 5, 2013). Available at SSRN: or

Josephine A. W. Van Zeben (Contact Author)

Wageningen University and Research ( email )

Hollandseweg 1
Wageningen, 6706KN

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