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From description to analysis: why EU environmental policy research needs to move beyond the theoretical mainstream

The 44th conference of the University Association for Contemporary European Studies (UACES) took place in University College Cork last week. It brought together about 400 scholars, including one hundred postgraduate students to discuss recent research in EU studies. As the biggest EU studies association, UACES and its general conference afford a great opportunity to gauge the state of EU studies – and more precisely the part in which I work – EU environmental policies.

As an EU environmental policy researcher, I often have the feeling of inhabiting a niche – EU studies are a very broad field of research in terms of both disciplines (law, political science, history, sociology, political economy…) and focus (the way the EU work, the policies it makes, its impact on other levels of governance…).  Many colleagues in EU studies focus on for example local governments, EU diplomacy, minority rights and decision-making mechanisms. UACES conferences bring us all together, making it possible to evaluate the respective health of each subfield, to draw inspiration from each other and exchange on the current questions facing the EU – and research on the EU accordingly.

For me the conference highlighted two challenges – which arguably are interconnected. First, the predominance of mainstream approaches within EU studies – and EU environmental studies. Second, the continuing absence of discussion and action at EU level on environmental issues at the scale and pace required.

How does EU environmental policy studies fare within the broader EU studies family?

Six panels on EU environmental (Climate/Energy/Sustainability) policies were organized (out of 9 sessions in total) making it one of the policy area with the most panels – quite good for what is often felt to be a niche topic. These panels demonstrate the breadth of research happening in environmental issues within EU studies. Among a great variety of papers on, amongst others, EU fisheries managementEnvironmental Policy Integration or aviation emissions trading, two topics stood out: the development of/politics of renewable energies in the EU, and the external dimensions of EU environmental policies/politics. The number of papers presented on the first topic was partly due to the presence of many authors of a forthcoming book on the Europeanisation of renewable energies. Regarding the second topic, three papers dealt with environmental aspects of EU-China relations (on climate change and sustainable energy promotion), another discussed how Member States resist Commission’s attempt to better coordinate external energy contracts. Interestingly this external focus did not solely concern climate change – Lisanne Groen investigated in her paper the negotiating powers and successes of the EU in negotiation within the Convention on Biological Diversity. Faced with an apparently thriving field, should we rejoice?

Arguably yes – but with two added notes of caution. Firstly, this conference confirmed that case studies overwhelmingly drive EU environmental studies: the onus is put on presenting, describing, analyzing an interesting, important case – and not so much on the theories mobilized to do so. Europeanisation, Normative Power Europe, Principal Agent Theory, spatial models of decision-making– these theories or approaches can be very useful but they are not novel, and more importantly they tend to belong to what scholars such as Ian Manners or Ben Rosamond qualify as the “mainstream” of EU studies.[1] Secondly, while environmental studies appear to be doing well, major environmental issues such as climate change, biodiversity loss etc. did not feature in general discussions (in the plenaries) mirroring in that respect their move off the EU political agenda (and what Philomena Murray and Ian Manners argue mark the disappearance of the “green Europe” narrative.

Moving beyond the theoretical mainstream?

Theories are conventionally perceived to act as both lenses and blinders. They enable us to focus effectively on a precise object/process/phenomenon, but they tend to blind us to events or actors that do not fit with them – as shown by the practice turn in EU studies advocated by Rebecca Adler-Nissen. The scientific consensus on climate change (IPCC 2013) – and more broadly growing concerns on biodiversity loss and environmental changes – and our political systems’ current failure to tackle these issues (with reducedenvironmental ambition at EU level in the last few years, as environmental policies are deemed a luxury) highlight the problem with the status quo of mainstream politics and policy. But are we using theories enabling us to see beyond the status quo?

This leads to a number of questions. First, can mainstream EU studies positively impact EU actors/institutions/culture etc. to move away from the present quandary? If not, should we take on board non-mainstream approaches to try to push for such a change? Or is this beyond our role as academics, and we should limit ourselves to explaining the past and present, not informing the future?

While the whole field of EU studies – and within it environmental EU studies – is unlikely to change overnight and to adopt critical theories or “dissident voicesen masse,  we need a dialogue between critical and mainstream approaches to inform each other’s work, for complementarity – e.g. in addressing different but equally relevant questions. If we choose to inhabit and think from the mainstream we need to be conscious of it, and if a foray beyond the mainstream appeals, the different presentations on dissident voices at #UACES2014 – by Owen Parker on presenting critical approaches in the classroom, Stefan Borg on making discourse analysis critical again or Philomenna Murray on the different narratives underpinning integration – offer ways in which to do so.

With regard to environmental EU studies, I found it very useful to compare my own rather mainstream approach to much more critical approaches such as Alex Warleigh-Lack’s presentation on Rethinking Integration Theory: An Ecological Perspective, offering to green integration theory to make it fit to address climate change with the help of  Gaia theory and…atomic kittens.

Conclusion

#UACES2014 has been a resounding success, offering a great atmosphere in which to share knowledge and constructively challenge each other. EU environmental studies appear to be doing very well, with a great number of papers presented. A good conference makes you think and UACES 2014 highlighted two challenges: the predominance of mainstream approaches within EU studies – and EU environmental studies and the continuing absence of discussion and action at EU level on environmental issues at the scale and pace required. Is it time for EU environmental policy and politics scholars to adopt more critical approaches in order to push for greater action on the environmental front?

 



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