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Multilevel Governance

Page history last edited by Jasmine Ganeshalingam 12 years, 10 months ago





The concept of multilevel governance has its origins in the early 1990s. Traditionally, for many thinkers the EU was considered as another international organization like the UN and NATO and IR theory was commonly applied to its study. However, closer European integration during the 1990s and more significantly the signing of the Maastricht Treaty along with the growing competence of the supranational institutions of the EU led to the development of an alternative wave of thought. This saw the EU as a distinctive political system having more similarities to national political systems than to international organizations. Although the idea of multilevel governance was initially developed around the EU, many forms of it have been applied in other areas of study such as in the study of federal states in comparative politics. Quite notable is the argument of J. McCormick on the origins of the concept. According to him, “multilevel governance is a conceptual cousin of two other, older concepts”, federalism and confederalism (McCormick: 2008: 15).  



Key Thinkers


The first thinkers who introduced the multilevel governance approach through their work were Gary Marks and Liesbet Hooghe. In 1996 in their contribution to the “Journal of Common Market Studies” called “European Integration from the 1980s: State-Centric v. Multi-level Governance” they challenged traditional state-centric views arguing that the sovereignty of European states is limited by the application of collective decision-making and by the growing competence of supranational institutions.(Marks and Hooghe: 1996: 341) They also contended that “European states are losing their grip on the mediation of domestic interest representation in international relations.”(Marks and Hooghe: 1996: 341) In a more recent paper they supported that due to European integration “a multi-level polity has been created that delivers, or co-delivers, several of the chief outputs of government, including monetary policy, competition policy, regional policy, market regulation, and elements of industrial relations, law and order, and education.” (Marks and Hooghe: 2004: 1)





The multilevel governance approach considers the EU as a political system in its own right which shares many features with national political systems. Therefore, a wider variety of actors are involved in the policy process than merely national executives. According to Marks and Hooghe “multilevel governance emerges when experts from several tiers of government share the task of making regulations and forming policy, usually in conjunction with relevant interest groups.” (Hague and Harrop: 2007: 282) Multilevel governance sees European policy as the result of a constant coordination across different territorial levels including a supranational, national, regional and local level. The main characteristics of the relationship between these different tiers are overlap and interdependence. However, this interaction illustrates only the vertical dimension of the European policy process. Multilevel governance theory also suggests the existence of a second, horizontal dimension. Hence, coordination not only takes place across different territorial levels but also within them. The result is a complex overlapping process which involves numerous actors that shape the final output according to their individual properties (demands, interests, resources and competencies). As Stubbs characteristically states: "A multi-level governance perspective forces one to address processes of the supranationalisation, the decentralisation and the dispersal of authority as potentially coterminous, rather than engage in very narrow, linear, debates about the influence, or lack of influence, of international agencies." (Stubbs: 2005: 67)






During the recent years multilevel governance has been widely used by Western European and US researchers to explain European governance. Although multilevel governance is discussed as a general attribute of European governance, it is perhaps most important for understanding the implementation of European directives.” (Wiener and Diez: 2009: 95) In respect to the EU treaties the power of legislation initiation rests within the Commission. However, in practice, the agenda setting receives great influence from other actors, both national and social. What is more important is that the Commission has little power of implementation, so decisions taken at the supranational level are expected to be implemented by the lower levels.

In addition, B. Guy Peters and Jon Pierre stress the political consequences of multilevel governance:


Multilevel governance empowers, or in some instances virtually creates, regional entities with European member states. This empowerment may help to legitimate the EU, given that it involves and recognizes lower level governments which tend to have greater legitimacy (especially in multi-ethnic countries) than do national governments. In addition, the development of these relationships does provide some social and political groups which might have relatively little influence over policy in other circumstances.” (Wiener and Diez: 2009: 96)






The very core of multilevel governance theory which is the notion of different territorial levels has been greatly contested. Some thinkers believe that the organisation of levels implies a hierarchical order which cannot be possible in such a complex process. Others completely fail to distinguish between levels since public and private actors operate in interlocking roles both domestically and internationally. More specifically, Stubs (2005) has accused the multilevel governance literature of "premature normativism", "abstract modelling", and "rehashed neo-pluralism". Furthermore, state-centric theories such as realism reject the idea of a supranational level with its own authority, considering international organizations mere tools which are established on the sole purpose of serving state interests. Nevertheless, Bache and Flinders crucially observe that while multi-level governance remains a contested concept, its broad appeal reflects a shared concern with increased complexity, proliferating jurisdictions, the rise of non-state actors, and the related challenges to state power” (Stubbs: 2005: 68).





  • Gowland, D et al (2006) The European Mosaic. (Pearson Education Limited: Essex)


  • Hague, R. and Harrop, M (2007) Comparative Government and Politics. (Palgrave MacMillan: UK)



  • Marks, G. and Hooghe, L. (1996) "European Integration from the 1980s: State-Centric v. Multi-level Governance". Journal of Common Market Studies, Vol.34, No. 3, 341-378


  • McCormick, J. (2008) Understanding the European Union: A Concise Introduction. (Palgrave MacMillan: UK)


  • Stubbs, P. (2005) "Stretching Concepts Too Far? Multi-Level Governance, Policy Transfer and the Politics of Scale in South East Europe". Southeast European Politics, Vol. VI, No. 2, 66-87   


  • Wiener, A. and Diez, T. (2009) European Integration Theory. (Oxford University Press: USA)


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