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Josephine van Zeben has received yearlong funding from the Niels Stensen Foundation for her new research project: A Polycentric Europe?

The research attempts to embrace, rather than simplify, the unprecedented complexity of modern economic, social and environmental problems. Part of this complexity is inherent to the types of problems we have to confront, such as climate change. In addition, modern systems of governance themselves are increasingly complexity. Most policy areas are now ‘transboundary’: they deal with problems that are not contained by national boundaries, and/or they fall within the jurisdiction of a regional or international body that covers several smaller jurisdictions. The traditional method of government with the nation state as the focal point has increasingly been moved to the background, and research pertaining to ‘government’ has largely been replaced by studies on ‘governance’.


In her PhD, Josephine developed a theoretical framework that fills existing gaps within legal and economic scholarship on multi-level governance by distinguishing between different parts of the regulatory process – also referred to as regulatory competences – and shows how the effectiveness of governance can be improved, or undermined, by the way in which these competences are allocated across governance levels. The importance of this differentiation lies in the fact that the conditions for e.g. successful norm setting differ from those for successful enforcement, so ‘centralization’ norm setting should not presuppose centralized enforcement. The current project builds on this prior research and proposes a polycentric analysis of the development of particular policy areas within the European Union.

Polycentricity describes a system of governance that encompasses many centers of decision-making, which are formally independent of each other. Despite this formal independence, these centers do interact with each other in a coherent and predictable manner through competitive relationships, and/or various contractual and cooperative undertakings. By acknowledging the possibility of overlapping jurisdictions, a polycentric governance model extends not only to the public actors, but also encompasses private and voluntary actors. Moreover, it enables us to consider overlapping ‘realms of responsibility and functional capacity’ of different jurisdictions.

The potential of polycentric analysis for assessing the functioning of the European Union has not yet been answered within the existing legal, and law and economics, literature. A general theoretical framework for mapping the system of governance within the European Union will be developed through which the functioning of specific policy areas can be assessed, particularly: climate and energy policy, public health, and the regulation of the Eurozone. This theoretical framework would constitute a deepening of the existing multilevel governance system applied to European institutional development. This improved academic understanding will in turn enable scholars to provide policy advice that is closer to regulatory reality and thus more likely to render successful results.

The research will be conducted at the Vincent and Elinor Ostrom Workshop in Political Theory and Policy Analysis in Bloomington, Indiana (USA). The width and depth of the expertise available in the Workshop regarding polycentrism is unique in the world. The insights gathered at the Workshop regarding the American system, and many international systems, can guide the application of polycentrism to the European Union. Josephine is especially looking forward to working with professors Daniel Cole and Michael McGinnis. The main research methodology is based on analysis of primary and secondary regulatory documents, including legal acts, in order to create an ‘Institutional Analysis and Development (IAD) Framework’. The IAD Framework is a framework for analysis, which has been developed at the Workshop. An IAD Framework outlines the key variables that researchers should use in evaluating the role of institutions in shaping social interactions and decision-making processes.