Overt and Covert: Institutionalization in Europe
17 Pages Posted: 15 May 2001
Observers of the European policy-making process are inevitably struck by the contrast between cumbersome decision-making processes on the one hand and simultaneous swift policy developments on the other. Many policies seem to be stuck for long periods in the Council, while at the same time similar measures are introduced under a different guise along a different path. A case in point is European anti-poverty policy. At the very time when this measure was bogged down in a Council deadlock, it was reintroduced by the Commission, couched in different terms in a new political context. In the end it was elevated to official status in the Amsterdam Treaty. A further example of a similar process was in European telecommunications policy which initially met with strong resistance from member states. As a result of the Commission's skilful use of all kinds of soft measures, such as offering research funds to industry and actively creating a supportive policy network, it finally became established as a regular European policy. Or, to cite an example from general procedure: the main avenue of European policy-making in the Council often stalls because of the need for consensus, whereas Court rulings and Commission decisions are not hindered by this requirement. Consequently, the emphasis of European policy expansion has often shifted to the European Court of Justice's and the Commission's legal interpretation of rules which exist under the Treaty of Rome. This has given European policies a bias in favour of free trade and free competition. At the same time market-correcting measures and the pursuit of distributive goals remain entangled in the gridlock of Council decision-making processes and are pushed into the background. Again, however, they re-emerge in bits and pieces and under a different guise in new contexts as a result of successful circumvention of Council deadlocks. Why is it that European policies which stagnate in the main political arena, materialize in other shapes and forms elsewhere? And what are the typical escape routes when the main political avenue is blocked? I argue that the formal institutional structure of the European Union together with the diversity of member states' interests would regularly lead to an impasse in decision-making were it not for the existence of different paths of institutionalization which have emerged to circumvent impending deadlock. This overt and covert institutionalization creates a European political space, meaning "a widely shared system of rules and procedures to define who actors are, how they make sense of each other's actions and what types of actions are possible". It has developed in three different ways; firstly, straightforward changes made to existing rules as a result of intepretation and negotiated modifications; secondly, the explicit and implicit development of new soft or informal institutions, such as information and monitoring, mobilization and network building, and the spontaneous emergence of social conventions, as a way of expanding the areas of European activity; and thirdly, "kitchen politics", i.e. more covert ways of overcoming formal institutional obstacles to decision-making. Such covert ways involve committing actors to policy decisions, the implications of which are not spelt out in advance, by concealing planned or on-going changes from the general public, as well as by re-labeling and re-contextualizing issues in order to embed them in a different choice situation which helps overcome a deadlock. These three different modes of effecting change-as will be shown in the following-can be observed in the most diverse areas of European policy-making and generally result in a widening of European policy activities. They constitute the ways in which the rule structures governing the European policy space are elaborated, or adapted, through interpretation, legislation, the development of shared understandings of norms and procedures, but also by committing unwitting actors to a subsequent widening of European activities: they are is the central theme of this volume as indicated in the introductory essay by Stone, Fligstein, and Sandholtz. Since modes of institutionalization where there is member-state resistance to the introduction of more European activities are of particular interest in this article, by logical implication the question also arises as to the conditions under which deepening institutionalization does not occur, and a development in the opposite direction takes place, narrowing the scope of European activities. In other words, the systematic points where turns in the other direction occur-steps of de-institutionalization, as it were-have to be identified as well. This chapter is divided into two sections: first, the three basic modes of overt and covert institutionalization and their theoretical foundations are discussed, each illustrated by empirical examples of European policy-making. In the second stage the question is raised as to consequences of the different modes of institutionalization and the conditions under which these different paths of deepening European institutionalization do not normally occur.
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation