Focus and puzzles
The main interest of my research is to explore the link between the policy- and politics dimension of European integration: more specifically, the interrelation between the evolution of new forms of multi-level governance in the EU, and their public justification, political contestation and democratic legitimacy. How can the EU develop processes of decision-making that are perceived as inclusive and democratically legitimate? How does European decision-making affect core democratic institutions at the Member State level, and political controversies within these institutions?
Since my PhD, I have pursued these questions and developed my research from an initially almost exclusive focus on supranational decision-making in the EU to a comparative perspective on processes of Europeanization at the Member State level and more recently, to cases outside of the EU. The three main stages of my research are described in more detail below.
1) EU regulatory governance and civil society
Since the beginning of the 1990s, policy-making in the EU has been changing dramatically, particularly through the establishment of new, de-centralized forms of governance and public-private partnership. One of the primary examples of these changes is EU Social Policy, where the political competences of the EU remain limited but a broad range of governance mechanisms were created after the Maastricht Treaty to put in place regulatory policies and create a framework for the coordination of Member State policies (especially through the European Social Dialogue and Open Method of Coordination).
In my PhD, I focused on the interrelation between these procedures and normative standards of democratic legitimacy: What legitimacy principles were established by these new procedures, and how could they be seen to be fulfilled? Combining empirical research with a discussion of relevant theoretical approaches (esp. deliberative supranationalism), my doctoral thesis highlights tensions between principles of input- and output-legitimacy (including standards of inclusiveness, accountability, and deliberation), concluding with recommendations on the future development of regulatory social policy at the European level.
Following on this stage, I was involved in a large EU-funded research project on food safety regulation (Safe Foods, EU 5th Framework Programme), based at the University of Maastricht (Faculty of Law, supervised by E. Vos). Here, I conducted research focusing on the question how procedures of risk assessment (concentrated at EFSA) and risk management (based in the EU Commission) can be related in ways that are perceived as coherent, transparent and inclusive both by relevant stakeholders and the general public. Results of this research include an edited volume on food safety regulation at the EU and Member State level, and a proposal on a framework for inclusive food safety governance, published in cooperation with project partners at the University of Stuttgart (O. Renn) and the Unviersity of Sussex (A. Stirling). Both aspects of this research were based on empirical research including extensive interviews and expert workshops with policy-makers and representatives of stakeholder organizations.
2) Europeanization of parliamentary discourse
National parliaments are essential institutions for democracy, both for the scrutiny and authorization of policy-making and the representation of a broad spectrum of political views and public controversy between them. While most research on the Europeanization of parliaments has concentrated on their interaction with other political institutions (domestic executives and EU institutions), I took a closer look at their relation with citizens: particularly, the public justification of European decision-making in plenary debates and evolving forms of party political contestation within these debates. How are justificatory arguments based on economic interest, deep-seated political values and questions of fairness and legitimacy linked to party political debate on Europe? Are debates on Europe just another case of politics as usual, pitting government and opposition and left vs. right against each other, or do these controversies reveal new alliances and forms of polarization?
Based on a comparison between the parliaments of four EU Member States (Austria, France, Germany and the UK), I conducted a large empirical analysis of plenary debates using computer-based coding, producing quantitative data on the use of discursive frames and subsequent qualitative analysis. The results, which are published in my 2016 book and numerous journal articles and book chapters, lead to two main findings: Public debate on European issues involves several thematic layers (including scrutiny of leadership by domestic executives, directional debates on specific policies and constitutional questions of EU competence and legitimacy), opening up considerable controversy on the state and future of European integration. Furthermore, discursive frames and patterns of contestation are linked, indicating pragmatic arguments on the utility of European policy as a typical government discourse, references to values as a source of left-right contestation, and legitimacy-based arguments as a pattern of contestation between mainstream parties and Eurosceptic parties on the right and left. In this sense, ‘Europe’ has reached domestic political debate as an issue of political contestation.
3) Frames and Policy-Making in EU & US Climate Change Governance
Climate change policy speaks to my research interests in two ways: First, it is an primary example of globalized multi-level governance, involving decision-making through networks at the international, regional (EU), as well as domestic and sub-national level. Second, it represents a policy field that highlights the essential role of ideas and discursive frames for justifying political action: While the phenomenon of climate change is described through science-based observations and assumptions, it is subject to multiple and highly contentious forms of interpretation and framing when raised as a political problem that requires action and change. Beyond questions of ontological interpretation, climate change policy touches on questions of justice and deep-seated ethical values, aside from requiring debate about the adequacy and efficiency of new policy instruments.
How is the battle of ideas about climate change linked to policy-making aiming at the reduction of carbon emissions? So far, little research exists beyond normative and critical discourse approaches exploring the role of ideas and discourse as a factor of comparative policy and systems analysis. Against this background, I am currently developing a research project that explores the interaction between the framing of climate change action in public discourse and policy-making at the EU level and in the United States. Focusing on legislative institutions and their role as intermediating institutions between public contestation and legislative policy-making, I am starting research about decision-making in the European Parliament and US Congress in a multi-level context between federal/supranational and state-level debates, harnessing an advocacy coalition approach and elements of framing analysis.