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The European Commission - A successful institutional gardener?

Hausarbeit 2001 14 Seiten

Politik - Internationale Politik - Thema: Europäische Union




1. Introduction

2. Strategies
2.1 Stabilize attention
2.2 Develop a shared vocabulary
2.3 Develop shared interpretations of experience
2.4 Develop shared criteria of assessment
2.5 Clarify aspirations
2.6 Improve institutional adaptability

3. The White Paper
3.1 Efforts to stabilize attention
3.2 Efforts to develop a shared vocabulary
3.3 Efforts to develop shared interpretations of experience
3.4 Efforts to develop shared criteria of assessment
3.5 Efforts to clarify aspirations
3.6 Efforts to improve institutional adaptability

4. Conclusion



The present research paper tries to assess the strategies of the Commission's White Paper on European Governance (2001) in the light of the criteria for successful institutional reform developed by Johan P. Olsen in his paper "How, then, does one get there?" (2000).

In this theoretical perspective, reformers in the EU must act as institutional gardeners and try to exploit European arenas of interaction to influence the attitudes and identities of the other actors.

The Commission seems to be well aware of the fact that reform efforts by political leaders alone cannot ensure specific institutional changes. It tries to ensure the support and resources of the other institutions, citizens, subnational actors, civil society etc. Furthermore, the initiation of a public debate is an important factor for the emergence of common beliefs and identities and the creation of support.

But still it remains questionable if the Commission can act as a patient institutional gardener and realize a smooth reform of the EU by incremental adaptation because reform of the EU is really urgent by now and existing identities and traditions might not be changed quickly enough.

The paper briefly introduces Olsen's strategies before analyzing several aspects of the Commission's White Paper on European Governance. The conclusion is an attempt to develop an overall assessment of the Commission's chances of success.

1. Introduction

In recent years, neo-institutionalist theories have become dominant in research on European integration. Johan P. Olsen takes on the theoretical perspective of Sociological institutionalism which usually describes institutions as independent variables. But Olsen is more specific in this respect. In his paper "How, then, does one get there?" (2000), he emphasizes that political reformers must seek to understand the processes of institutional changes. Because, after all, there are conditions under which it is possible to deliberately change institutions or at least influence institutional changes. From this starting point he develops several strategies that might help political leaders to be more successful with their reform efforts.

Firstly, Olsen defines institutions as "rules and practices embedded in structures of meaning and resources"; meaning stands for expectations, preferences, aspirations, mentalities and identities (2000:2). Since the White Paper's definition of governance as "rules, processes and behaviour that affect the way in which powers are exercised at European level" (Commission 2001:8)[1] corresponds with Olsen's institutions, the Commission's reform proposals may well be assessed according to his criteria for successful institutional reform.

Secondly, in a large-scale, complex and dynamic system with unresolved conflict like the EU, institutional change cannot be well controlled or predetermined by political actors. Changes are most of the time incremental. The efforts of reformers are dependent on environmental developments, intrinsic institutional dynamics as well as their disposal of organizational capabilities to gain support and resources. Therefore, they must act as institutional gardeners (Olsen 2000:6).

Proposals for institutional reforms may then be visionary or utopian. Utopian proposals do not specify how and under what conditions their objectives can be obtained -if they are not impractical or impossible from the start; visionary leaders, in contrast, have sufficient control and understanding of the reform dynamics and their proposals can be imagined to work in practice (Olsen 2000:1).

This paper will -from the theoretical perspective developed by Olsen- address the following research question: Does the Commission's White Paper on European Governance follow the strategies for successful institutional reform by political gardeners?

The remainder of the paper is structured as follows: In the next section, I will briefly introduce Olsen's strategies. Then I will analyze several aspects of the Commission's White Paper on European Governance in the light of these criteria. My conclusion tries to develop an overall assessment of the Commission's chances of success by critically addressing the research question again.

2. Strategies

In Olsen's view, efforts for institutional reform cannot be successful without "changes in key concepts and vocabularies, preferences and world-views"; he even insists that "a power struggle over reforms, given the traditional consensus norms in the EU and the current preferences, world-views and powers of the various actors, is likely to threaten the EU itself" (2000:8). Thus, successful reform not only implies a change in formal-legal institutions, but also changes in the mentalities and identities of individuals and collectivities. Institutional gardeners must therefore exploit European arenas of interaction to influence the attitudes and identities of the other actors. They can cumulatively use the following strategies (Olsen 2000:9-14):

2.1 Stabilize attention

This strategy takes on a long-term time frame. A comprehensive reform may be successful in the long run if the refomers are persistent, make constant efforts to gain attention, support and resources for their plans and are able to reach their long-term aims proceeding step by step, connecting incremental changes together to an integral whole.


[1] Save as otherwise indicated, citations refer to the White Paper on European Governance (Commission 2001).


ISBN (eBook)
533 KB
Institution / Hochschule
Universiteit Leiden
European Commission Integration Politics Policy



Titel: The European Commission - A successful institutional gardener?