Customizing Europe

posted Jul 23, 2015, 12:41 AM by Eva Thomann   [ updated Jul 27, 2018, 2:29 AM ]
The European Union (EU) was created to reconcile far-reaching economic integration with legitimate
differences in national pr
efere
nces. Research on
the adoption of EU law by member states has typically focused on the question of (non-)compliance, but neglected the
more fine-grained differences between countries. However, even if compliance is given, then countries still differ considerably in the degree to which they adopt more and stricter rules than the EU. The adoption of divergent domestic policies, tailor-made to domestic circumstances, is an intended, widespread and neglected aspect of the European experience. This phenomenon, which I call "customization", is distinct from and has different explanations than compliance. A large-N study of customization patterns in 27 member states and two policy sectors shows that customization patterns are highly sector-specific and follow specific regulatory logics of EU policies. When only looking at patterns of (non-)compliance, we miss important variation in how member states interpret and adapt EU law. EU policies are rarely traced down the full implementation chain. We still hardly know, for instance, whether and how EU food safety policy actually matters for preventing or reducing antibiotic resistance.
In my research  I am interested in the implications of customized policies for how common policy problems, such as food safety in the European single market, are jointly, yet differently resolved in the EU. For example, I seek to understand whether transposing countries act in rational and opportunistic manners, according to institutionally embedded habits, or both when customizing EU law. Furthermore, how and why do functionally integrated non-members such as Switzerland customize relevant EU directives, as compared to EU countries? And how does how does the customization of EU food safety policy affect its successful implementation into practice?
I explored these questions in my postdoctoral research project "The customization of European Union directives: an international comparative inquiry",  funded by the Swiss National Science Foundation. I expanded on this research and broadened it to more policy fields and member states in another SNF-funded project titled "Policy Implementation in the Regulatory State: Assessing the problem-solving capacity of the European Union". This project entailed a number of collaborations, including Ellen Mastenbroek and Asya Zhelyazkova from Radboud University Nijmegen, and Jale Tosun from Heidelberg University. In Spring 2017, I spent four months at the Department of Political and Social Sciences at the European University Institute in Florence to work on my single-authored monograph on the topic.
In this book, titled  "Customized implementation of European Union food safety policy: United in diversity?" and published in Palgrave's International Series on Public Policy, I look at how five Western European countries (including Switzerland) customize EU food safety policies, and how that affects policy outcomes. As the first systematic comparative study of customization for the problem-solving capacity of the EU, this study has important findings.
On the one hand, it shows that customization patterns do seem to relatively coherently follow different logics of action. More concretely, I find that countries tend to customize macro issues according to a logic of consequences, and micro issues according to a logic of appropriateness. Macro issues are issues that refer to frequently occurring situations, situations that have notable consequences for the addressees, and are issues that local stakeholders consider salient. If such issues are at stake, then member states tend to calculate benefits and risks based on their own interests when deciding whether or not or how to customize EU law. Micro issues refer to very rare situations, merely administrative procedures, and mean only negligible costs or benefits for the addressees. For such issues, member states tend to consider existing institutions, habits and norms when deciding whether or not to customize EU rules. I argue that this finding reveals a potential for steering member state responses to EU law, as different EU governance tools capitalize on these logics of action . Concretely, governance by competition and enforcement approaches could be applied to steer customized implementation when macro issues are at stake. Conversely, governance by communication could work to influence the customization of micro issues.
On the other hand, the findings shed light on the differentiated role that customization plays as a problem-solving strategy for successful implementation. This role is neither clear-cut nor simple, but highly contingent on the nature of the policy problem and other aspects of the domestic regulatory context. Results reveal that both extensive and limited customization can contribute to successful practical implementation, depending on the circumstances. Empirically, what we observe much more often is that extensive customization serves as a problem-solving strategy. Specifically, extensive customization contributes to successful implementation when policy problems are intractable or when domestic regulatory contexts are challenging. Conversely, if the policy problems are tractable, then customization appears irrelevant, particularly when the domestic regulatory contexts are ideal for successful implementation. However, the fact that EU policies are literally adopted can also contribute to successful practical implementation. In particular, literal transposition and coherent domestic policy designs help enforce uncontested food safety standards. Moreover, literal Transposition plays an important role in explaining why practical implementation fails. In particular, the literal implementation of incoherent and inflexible EU rules can reinforce goal conflicts that negatively affect policy outcomes. However, there are also cases in which deficient implementation can primarily be attributed to the complexities of a hybrid enforcement regime, independent of customization levels.
Taken together, these results have implications for the EU's "better regulation" agenda. Particularly, the crucial element does not seem to be to avoid over-implementation at all costs, but to identify the conditions under which it can be reconciled with dynamics of Europeanization. The book provides concrete recommendations for policymakers and practitioners in this regard. Moreover, I discuss implications for general policy implementation theories, and propose a refinement of existing models reconciling top-down and Bottom-up perspectives on implementation.
European integration implies a loss of sovereignty for nation states. The customization phenomenon relativizes the extent of this loss of control. It highlights similarities of member state implementation in the EU with other multilevel systems such as Switzerland, and paints a differentiated and realistic picture of European integration in practice. This research generates useful insights for Switzerland, which is closely integrated in the European single market and must ensure the exportability of its products. With Brexit ahead, insights on customized adoption of EU law can also inform policymakers in the UK.

Read the blog post "Beyond legal compliance in EU multilevel implementation" to find out more about the related special issue in the Journal of European Public Policy, co-edited with Fritz Sager !

Related publications
Thomann, E. (2018). Customized implementation of European Union food safety policy: United in diversity?  Palgrave Macmillan, International Series on Public Policy.
Thomann, E. and A. Zhelyazkova. 2017. Moving beyond (non-)compliance: the customization of European Union policies in 27 countries. Journal of European Public Policy, DOI: 10.1080/13501763.2017.1314536.
Thomann, E. and F. Sager. 2017. Moving beyond legal compliance: Innovative approaches to EU multi-level implementation. Journal of European Public Policy, DOI:10.1080/13501763.2017.1314541.
Thomann, E. and F. Sager. 2017. Toward a better understanding of implementation performance in the EU multi-level system. Journal of European Public Policy, DOI: 10.1080/13501763.2017.1314542.
Thomann, E. 2015. Customizing Europe: Transposition as bottom-up implementation. Journal of European Public Policy 22(10): 1368-1387.
Sager, F., Thomann, E., Zollinger, C. and C. Mavrot. 2014. Confronting theories of European integration: A comparative congruence analysis of veterinary drugs regulations in five countries. Journal of Comparative Policy Analysis: Research and Practice 16(5):457-474.
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