Institutions of Governance
A Prelude to an Institutional Account of Political
Johan P. Olsen**
ARENA, University of Oslo
In search of new forms of political unity
For half a century, Europeans have (again) explored
the possibility of new forms of political order and
unity. This time change has been non-violent and there
have been comprehensive and possibly lasting changes in
the (West) European institutions of governance. Still,
students of European political integration face a partial
and emerging polity, with institutions of governance in
change and not in a stable equilibrium.
Accounting for the dynamics of political integration
requires attention to four questions. First, what
is meant by "political integration", how are
such processes to be conceptualised and what are good
indicators of changing levels and forms of integration? Second,
on what basis is the new polity - the European Union, as
a political organisation and system of governance - being
integrated? Related to this, how much, and what, ties
members of the EU together and separates them from
non-members? Third, what are the consequences of
various levels and forms of integration? What are the
most significant effects of changing levels of
integration, including implications for the constituent
units? Fourth, what are the determinants of
political integration and through what processes does
change take place? Why are there variations in the levels
and forms of integration across institutional spheres and
policy sectors? Why are there changes over time? In
particular, what is the integrating power of shifting
system performance in terms of efficient problem solving
and service delivery? What is the integrating power of
shared, relatively stable constitutive principles,
institutions and procedures of good governance?
This chapter is a prelude
to answering such questions. The chapter is a prelude
because it primarily catalogues some issues,
controversies and research challenges that need
clarification before a coherent theoretical approach to
(European) political integration can be developed.  The chapter feeds
on an institutional perspective. Yet, it does not aspire
to document the advantages of this perspective. That is,
it does not specify concrete implications that are
interesting, non-obvious and disconfirmable. Nor does it
document the phenomena that can be better understood
within an institutional perspective than within competing
accounts of political integration.
The chapter starts with the observation that
institutional change is a theme attracting attention from
both practitioners and researchers. It argues that a
European specific agenda should be closely linked to a
more general theoretical agenda. Two complications are
attended to: the lack of adequate concepts to capture
political integration and the limited agreement on the
nature of existing European institutional arrangements.
In the following focus is on two types of change that are
important for the formation of legitimate democratic
governance. That is, the processes through which legal
institutions are turned into "living"
institutions and incentive-based orders are replaced by
orders based on authority and informed consent.
Three frames for understanding institutional change
are sketched. In contrast to much conventional wisdom, it
is argued that an institutional perspective implies a
dynamic, not static, view of political life. Major
sources of change are inherent in institutional ideals
that are strived for but never reached, and in tensions
and collisions caused by competing ideals and principles
built into single institutions and polities. The chapter
ends with a metaphor and some remarks about realistic
The relevance of institutions: Three agendas
Currently, it is commonplace for practitioners to
argue that comprehensive institutional reform is
indispensable and should be a top priority for the
European Union. The practical-political agenda
- the past: European cooperation has been
"deepened" and "widened". Formal
institutions, it is claimed, are to a large extent the
same. They lag behind due to stagnation of EU reforms.
- the current situation: the need to respond to the
recent (perceived) institutional crisis and restore the
credibility of the EU institutions, and
- the future: existing institutions are portrayed as
hopelessly inadequate in a Union of 25-30 members. Future
enlargements of the EU, with new types of applicants and
on a scale never experienced before, require prior
There are disagreements concerning the scope of
reforms, for instance whether the new intergovernmental
conference on institutional reforms should concentrate on
the "leftovers" from Amsterdam, i.e. the
weighting of votes in the Council, extension of qualified
majority voting, and the size and composition of the
Commission, or whether "major surgery" is
needed. Moreover, there is no unanimity when it comes to
the methods for preparing institutional reform, e.g. the
use of a small independent committee of experts or intergovernmental diplomacy. There is
more agreement that institutional reform requires a
long-term process, rather than an ad hoc, short-term
The European-specific research agenda portrays
the EU polity as sui generis. The key question is
what competing analytical approaches and interpretations
can contribute to a better understanding of the specific
EU dynamics and continuities, i.e. institutional
formation and change in the particular European
socio-economic and historical-cultural context.
The intrinsic importance of the emerging European
institutions of governance is a sufficient reason for the
attention of researchers. However, there is also a more general
theoretical agenda. This agenda goes beyond
understanding the ways in which the EU polity is
developing. It aspires to give an account of
institutional change and reform that captures
developments outside the Union and Europe at large. While
the EU system of governance has some unique properties,
it also shares important features with other complex
polities. For instance, the metaphor that the EU system
of multi-level governance is like a "marble
cake" rather than "layer cake", was used
nearly two decades ago to describe inter-governmental
relations in the United States (Sharkansky 1981).
The key issue on the general theoretical agenda is how
European studies may help us develop more advanced
theories of governance, political organisation and
institutional change. Taking into account the
significance of shifting contexts, are there any general
lessons to be learnt about how polities develop, are
maintained and change? Are there lessons that require us
to revise or replace basic theoretical ideas, concepts,
methods, techniques and normative standards?
A basic assumption of the chapter is that a succesful
follow-up of the three agendas is more likely if they are
considered together. For instance, all three depend on
some serious conceptual homework. The task of analysing
the dynamics of European integration is complicated by
the limitations of available conceptual tools. The claim
that "despite the seeming importance of the EC
institutional components, with few exceptions
institutions have played a scant role theoretically in
accounts of European integration" has not become
obsolete (Caporaso and Keeler 1995: 49. See, however,
Bulmer 1994, Olsen 1996, Armstrong and Bulmer 1998,
Jupille and Caporaso 1999, Aspinwall and Schneider 2000,
Cowles, Caporaso and Risse 2000). The next section gives
an illustration of some elementary conceptual challenges
facing students of European institutions of governance
and political integration in general.
Political integration as institutionalisation
In order to talk about differences in the level and
form of political integration, as well as
institutionalisation as an indicator of political
integration, we need a metric for political integration
and institutionalisation. Only then can we recognise
possible enduring changes towards a "higher level of
European integration". Only then can we know whether
Europe is moving toward an "ever closer union",
and whether we are facing "a new stage in the
process of European integration".
"Integration" signifies some measure of the
density, intensity and character of the relations among
the constitutive elements of a system. Integration may
refer to causal interdependence among the parts, consistency
- the degree of coherence and coordination among the
parts, and structural connectedness - a
sociometric or network vision of integration (March 1999:
134-5). The three aspects of integration are not
necessarily strongly correlated, and here political
integration is primarily seen as changes in structural
connectedness, i.e. inter-institutional relations.
Falling back on integration as institutionalisation,
however, is of limited help, because the concept of
"institution" is also contested.
Institutionalised government is "conducted in the
light of some socially standardised and accepted
code" (Finer 1970:12). Still, institution may refer
to an abstract regulatory prescription that is supposed
to govern a certain sphere of conduct, and it may also
refer to specific less than perfect historical attempts
to put such abstract ideas into practice (March and Olsen
We may distinguish among three dimensions of processes
of institutionalisation (March and Olsen 1995, Olsen
(1) structuration and routinisation - the
development of impersonal rules, roles, and repertoires
of standard operating procedures, as well as switching
rules between pre-structured responses (March and Simon
1958:170). Institutionalisation, then, implies
routinising some kinds of change as well as routinising
resistance to others.
(2) standardisation, homogenisation and
authorisation of codes of meaning, ways of reasoning and
accounts (March and Simon 1958:165). Practices and
procedures become valued beyond their
technical-functional properties (Selznick 1957,
Eisenstadt 1964). (3) binding resources to values and
worldviews (Stinchcombe 1968:181-2), i.e. staffs,
budgets, buildings and equipment, providing a capability
to act and to enforce rules in cases of non-compliance.
Authority and power are depersonalised (Weber 1978:246).
A perspective on international integration as
structural connectedness suggests that a polity has a low
level of institutionalisation and integration if the
constituent units just observe, inform, and adapt to each
other through processes of autonomous adjustment
(Lindblom 1965). The level of institutionalisation and
integration increases as the constitutive units:
- coordinate their policies in an ad hoc and pragmatic
way, based on self-interest or unit-specific norms.
- remove internal barriers to interaction and
exchange, and develop common rules and standards, rights
and obligations through inter-unit processes.
- develop distinct supranational institutions of
governance and routinised joint decision-making at the
system level, allowing various mixes of supranationality,
majority voting and veto-power for the basic units.
- develop common administrative and military
institutions, with staffs and budgets and therefore
capabilities for analysis, planning, decision-making,
implementation and enforcement.
- give supranational institutions the right to change
their own competence (kompetenz-kompetenz).
- develop a common public space, civic society and
institutions able to educate and socialise individuals
into informed citizens with a shared political identity
A caveat is in order. Historically, European political
developments have followed complex and varying
trajectories (Rokkan 1999). There is no reason to believe
that the list implies a perfect unidimensional or
cumulative scale of ascending degrees of structural
interconnectedness, or an obligatory pattern of
integration and institutionalisation. There may be a high
level of integration based upon informal codes of
conduct, soft law and policy cooperation, without
supranational institutions (Wallace 1999:13). In
addition, supranational formal-legal institutions are no
guarantee for strong integration. For instance,
establishing formal institutions for a common European
security and defense policy without adequate resources
may provide less integration than an informal
coordination of national defense capabilities. Ceteris
paribus, however, each step of institutionalisation
is likely to increase the level of integration. In sum,
integrated polities are "organised around
well-defined boundaries, common rules and practices,
shared causal and normative understandings, and resources
adequate for collective action" (March and Olsen
In this perspective, processes of institutionalisation
include: (1) Reorganising and rewriting institutional
forms, rules, roles and standards. (2) Reinterpreting
principles and doctrines, frames of understanding and
justification, including who is to be accepted as
authoritative interpreters of principles, rules and
situations. (3) Reallocating resources and changing
principles for allocating resources.
A specific measure of institutionalisation can be
related to changes in the use of coercion and material
incentives in regulating human behavior. An indicator of
institutionalisation, then, will be the use of less
coercion or material incentives in order to make people
follow formerly-questioned rules and practices. Under
some conditions, institutionalisation may also be
reflected in decreasing demands for participation, as
beliefs in the appropriateness of existing structures and
political authority are strengthened.
This leads to a focus on the normative quality of
political orders. In particular, attention is called to
how formal-legal institutional arrangements may be turned
into "living institutions". That is, how
organisational "charts" are translated into
collective practices based on legitimate authority,
defining appropriate behavior and ways of reasoning for
specific types of actors in specific types of situations.
From legal to "living" institutions
Analysing the dynamics of European integration is also
complicated by the fact that there is limited agreement
when it comes to what kind of polity the EU is (Schmitter
1996, Kohler-Koch 1999). The evolving European political
order is often portrayed as difficult to analyse and
describe. It is also uncertain what kind of political
integration is possible and likely in a multi-cultural
and pluralistic region organised politically on the basis
The architecture of the European polity, i.e. its
basic institutions, their powers and relationships, has
been contested since the original EC design and
throughout subsequent reforms (Wallace 1996b: 37). The
current institutional configuration is complex, ambiguous
and changing. It is multi-leveled, multi-structured and
multi-centered, characterised by networks across
territorial levels of governance, institutions of
government, and public-private institutions (Jachtenfuchs
and Kohler-Koch 1996, Kohler-Koch and Eising 1999).
According to Jacques Delors, the EU is an "objet
politique non-identifi�". The EU has come a
long way from a bargained agreement among nation-states,
to a quasi-federal polity (Stone Sweet and Sandholtz
1998:1). Still, the EU is not a fully-fledged polity
(Joerges 1996: 117, Wallace 1996b:39) nor an integrated
political community (Mayntz 1999:8). Rather, it is an
"experimental union" (Laffan, O'Donnel and
Smith 1999), an "unfinished polity" and a
"journey to an unknown destination" (Weiler
1993). The uncertainty of the future is highlighted by
the five scenarios in Europe 2010 developed by the
Commissions's Forward Studies Unit (Bertrand, Michalski
and Pench 1999).
For behavioral students of governance a challenge is
that EU institutions are usually discussed in
formal-legal terms, i.e. institutional powers formalised
in treaties and law. This activates old issues like the
relationship between legal and "living"
institutions and the political implications of formal
institutions and rules.
In the study of political life, legislation -- binding
for both rulers and ruled -- for a long time was believed
to be the most striking manifestation of political power
(Friedrich 1950: 268). In this perspective, government is
about "the formation and application of law through
public institutions" (Peters 1999: 5). To understand
institutions of government, it was necessary to know
their history (Finer 1999). For instance, understanding
Western legal institutions required tracing their roots
and routes back centuries (Berman 1983). Furthermore, a
legal description of political life, where political
institutions are understood by their legal codes and
where changes in formal-legal institutions and laws are
supposed to change human behavior, has been seen as
"a typically European way of looking at
politics" (Easton 1964:154).
The American-led "behavioral revolution" in
political science in the 1950s and 1960s rejected this
approach to the study of political life as formalistic,
legalistic and old fashioned. There was a need to
penetrate the formal surface of constitutional charters,
formal governmental institutions and laws, and to
describe and explain how politics "really
worked" (Eulau and March 1969: 15-16, Drewry 1996).
A result was increasing cynicism about the explanatory
power of law, constitutions and judicial institutions. In
a world of Realpolitik, such factors were seen as
Less emphasis was put on law as a distinct method of
social control based on the normative quality of
rules, principles and processes. The main tendency was to
ignore law as a revolutionary cultural force in Europe --
one that could change concepts, identities and collective
understandings. An implication was that behavioral
students often ignored historical development where an
instrumental view of law as externally imposed order and
discipline was supplemented with a theory of law as justice.
In other words, an interpretation of law as rules with a
defensable normative content, defining appropriate
behavior and generating pressure for compliance (Berman
1983, Habermas 1996, 1998, Koh 1997).
In contrast, the EU represents a renewed trust in
governance by law and the legal integration of polity and
society. While the EU uses a variety of policy modes, it
is to a large extent a regulatory polity (Majone 1996).
Therefore, the European context invites students of integration to reconsider the lessons of
the behavioral revolution. What are the relationships
between, on the one hand, formal-legal
institutions, legal concepts, categories and ways of
reasoning, formal decisions, and legally binding rules,
and, on the other hand, "living
institutions", rule-implementation, actual political
conduct and outcomes? For instance, is it possible to
build "a genuine European political and
administrative culture" (Sant�r) by rewriting
treaties and formal institutional designs?  What actually
happens after the great (formal) bargains are made and
the treaties are written (Moravcsik 1998)?
A key figure in the behavioral revolution maintains
that "most of the basic problems of a country cannot
be solved by constitutional design". The
significance of constitutions and institutions -- if it
really matters whether they are well or badly designed --
depends on whether the underlying social and economic
conditions are favorable, unfavorable or mixed (Dahl
1998: 127-8, 139). Some lawyers have also reduced their
expectations as to the effectiveness of legislation
(Joerges 1996: 123). Yet, both lawyers and political
scientists want to "analyse the Community
constitutional order with particular regard to its living
political matrix" (Weiler 1999: 15, also Armstrong
and Shaw 1998, Slaughter, Stone Sweet and Weiler 1998,
Craig and de B�rca 1999).
Weber observed that every system tries to establish
and cultivate belief in its legitimacy. Some are more
successful than others, and Weber defined the
constitution of an organisation as "the empirically
existing probability, varying in extent, kind and
conditions, that rules ... will be acceded to"
(Weber 1978: 50). Both legal and other rules present more
or less precise binding behavioral claims on more or less
specified groups of actors in more or less specified
Rules vary in terms of clarity, pertinence,
stringency, adaptability, coherence and consistency (Koh
1997, Z�rn and Joerges 1999). Furthermore, actors --
individuals (Tyler 1990) as well as states (Koh 1997,
Checkel 1999b) -- sometimes comply with rules and at
other times disobey rules. Under some conditions
formal-legal institutions have binding authority so that
formal and "living" institutions coincide.
Under different conditions the gap between formal-legal
arrangements and practices is huge. Actors show great
caution in exercising their authority, powers and rights,
or they lack the capacity for doing so. There is no
straight line from structure to outcome (Caporaso and
Keeler 1995: 47), and institutional continuity and policy
change go together well (Eising and Kohler-Koch 1999,
Sverdrup 1999). Sometimes rules lose their binding
authority. They are ignored, contested, changed or
replaced. Sometimes legal rules become a "mask"
hiding the political effects of legal integration and a
"shield" insulating legal rules from political
influence (Burley and Mattli 1993).
A staggering feature of the EU has been the rather
high level of compliance with rules and the development
of legitimacy via judicial processes and legal
integration. Therefore, a challenge for students of
political integration is to provide a better
understanding of the legitimacy and authority of European
rules, including the change mechanisms between types of
rules and motivations for following them. Which factors
affect the probability of acting in accordance with rules
of appropriate behavior? How can we understand variations
in compliance across rules, actors and situations? There
is no reason to expect simple answers. Rather, a variety
of reasons for following and breaking rules can be
Turning incentives into authority
An institutional perspective, as defined here, assumes
that rule-following is a more fundamental logic of action
than action based on the continuous calculation of
expected utility (March and Olsen 1989,1995). Still, it
is necessary to differentiate between reasons for
rule-following. Rules may be obeyed out of habit and
"traditional unreflective reverence for pre-existing
authority" (Finer 1970: 104). Compliance may be
governed by rational calculation of the expected utility
of alternative behaviors. Rules may also be followed due
to an identity-derived internalised feeling of a moral
obligation to do so, e.g. a law-abiding mentality. Or,
compliance may be based on interaction and argumentation.
That is, rules are followed because of the causal and
normative reasons given for the rules and the processes
and institutions by which rules are formed and enforced.
Most of the time, the legitimacy of political
institutions are understood in functional-instrumental
terms (Finer 1970: 19, Stinchcombe 1997). Institutions
are purposeful, organised arrangements. Structures and
procedures are supposed to promote specific tasks,
purposes and goals. Legitimacy and support are based on
technical performance, i.e. efficiency in problem
solving, service delivery and the capacity to achieve
desired social purposes. Another possibility, however, is
to see the legitimacy of a polity as depending on the
degree to which structures, procedures and rules conform
with societal beliefs about legitimate institutions
(Meyer and Rowan 1977, Scott and Meyer 1994).
Competing conceptions of political institutions are
closely linked to different conceptions of the major
institutional impacts (March and Olsen 1998, Peters
1999). When institutions are interpreted in
functional-instrumental terms, emphasis is usually on
policy impacts. Political behavior is seen as
interest-driven and calculative and as externally
governed by material incentives and coercion. A
supplement is to argue that political institutions
constitute, authorise and publicly legitimise actors who
are supposed to be pursuing collective goals within a
system of rules and due process (Jepperson and Meyer
1991: 206). Institutions, then, are seen as having the
potential to form and transform actors, their mentality
and identity and change logics of actions, e.g. from
expected utility calculation to identity based
As a consequence, self-control is added to, or
replaces, external controls. Compliance is based on the
consent of actors who have internalised the belief that
they have a normative obligation to accept certain
institutions and policies under certain conditions (Weber
1978, Elias 1982, 1988, March and Olsen 1989, 1995,
Habermas 1996,1998). Institutional rules are followed
because they are accepted as normatively right and not
because of a hope to realise pre-determined ends by doing
so (Habermas 1996: 153). Change and continuity are
justified by appeals to the moral purpose and inherent
value of alternative institutional arrangements and
organising principles, rather than their immediate
consequences and functional efficiency (Reus-Smit
1997:583). In this perspective, political and economic
obligations of EU membership are (eventually) fulfilled
because they are seen as reasonable and just.
The latter conception is reflected in an important
development in European political history; the gradual
subjection of human conduct to due process and the rule
of law. Students of international politics, however, have
emphasised the difficulty of getting beyond
"anarchy" and cooperation based on calculated
alliances and power balances in international relations.
While some also see the transformation to legitimacy and
authority as "the essence of governance" in the
international context (Ruggie 1998), the pursuit of
justice and virtue is generally not seen as possible in
the state's external relations (Curtin 1997).
This view is also common in the European context, i.e.
the EU as a "benign technocracy". Then,
legitimacy and further integration depend on functional
performance, comparative problem solving effectiveness
and the ability to satisfy relevant policy interests
(Wallace 1996b:44). For instance, Scharpf claims that
students of European integration have become more aware
of some "lasting limitations" of European
political integration. The legitimacy of the EU in the
foreseable future will depend on its problem
solving-capabilities and its institutional safeguards
against the abuse of European power. There is no
pre-existing sense of collective identity, and a shared
identity is not to be expected, given the lack of a
European-wide discourse and an institutional
infrastructure that could assure the political
accountability of office holders to a European
constituence. Adding new member states from Central and
Eastern Europe will increase heterogeneity and make the
development of a common identity even more unlikely
(Scharpf 1999a: 4, 187-8).
Others see European political and legal institutions
as having a larger potential for transforming
mentalities, identities and logics of action. They argue
that processes of opinion and will formation, through a
communicative logic of argumentation and justification,
to some degree can cultivate citizens' character and
identities and build solidarity beyond the level of the
nation-state (Habermas 1996: 506, also, Habermas 1998,
Eriksen 1999, Checkel 1999a, Risse 2000). Furthermore, in
its self-presentation the EU adheres to several
fundamental principles of governance common to the member
states and independent of the single policy issue at
hand. As formulated in the Treaties, the European Union
is founded on the principles of liberty, democracy,
respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, and
the rule of law. A charter of fundamental rights and
freedoms is supposed to be worked out and decisions are
to be taken as openly as possible and as closely as
possible to the citizens. The Union shall also deepen the
solidarity of its peoples, while respecting their
history, culture and traditions.
A challenge, then, is to specify the degree to which,
and the conditions under which, the main foundation of a
polity's legitimacy represents superior functional
performance and continuous utility-calculation. Likewise,
what is the significance of historically-developed and
fairly stable internalised codes of appropriate behavior
and principles for living together politically? For
instance, to what degree does the effectiveness and
legitimacy of legal integration depend on an historic,
underlying political culture in Western Europe? When and
how is the legitimacy-basis of a system of governance
transformed from functional performance to internalised
codes of appropriateness, or vice versa? What is the
explanatory power of discourses and arguments? That is,
to what degree, and under what conditions, does
legitimacy depend on the defensible normative content of
the Leitid�en, principles and forms presented in
debates over what kind of European order is desirable?
The long-term interaction between legitimacy based on
performance and on normative principles and institutional
forms is not well understood (March and Olsen 1998).
There is no reason to believe that the two are completely
independent or perfectly correlated. However, one
hypothesis is that if polities are unable to influence
citizens' identity and mentality and base their
legitimacy on continuous performance, they tend to be
unstable. If everyone takes an external calculative
approach, so that legitimacy is solely based on
performance, rewards and punishments, change is driven by
shifting distributions of incentives and coercion, and
institutions will not last (Weber 1978, Habermas 1996).
In comparison, in polities where legitimacy is based
on shared political identities, collective understandings
and emotions, change is likely to be slow and a result of
step-wise reinterpretations or major external shocks. One
type of cultural shock is when a polity with a
law-abiding culture is extended to countries and groups
without a similar respect for law and due process.
Possibly, the argument is relevant for some candidates of
EU membership. Yet, the effect may be modified because
these new members may emphasise a different legitimacy
basis, e.g. becoming a part of a modern and democratic
Europe. If, however, participation in discourses over the
aims and justifications of European institutions and
policies is important for awarding the system legitimacy,
a possible development is towards an increasing
legitimacy gap between those taking part in discourses
and interactions and the bystanders. The bystanders are
impacted, but because they are not taking part in
argumentation over the future of Europe, they are less
prone to give legitimacy to the new polity.
An institutional perspective assumes that
institutional change will depend on both the level of
integration and the basis on which a polity is integrated
(Brunsson and Olsen 1998, Olsen 1998). Other frames for
understanding institutional dynamics, in contrast, tend
to see institutions as primarily an epiphenomenon,
reflecting competitive environments or the will and power
of identifiable actors.
Frames for understanding institutional dynamics
The history of the EU is consistent with the view that
all political arrangments are contingent and malleable,
yet not necessarily in a voluntaristic way (March and
Olsen 1989, 1995). EU developments reflect a history of
founding acts and deliberate institution-building as well
as informal and gradual institutional evolution. It is a
history where desired policy outcomes and prefered
institutional development have not necessarily coincided.
It is also a history of different dynamics in different
policy areas (Wallace 1996b: 38-39).
Here, I distinguish between three frames for
understanding the determinants of institutional change
and the processes through which change takes place: (1)
environmental accounts highlighting competitive
selection, (2) strategic agency accounts featuring human
will, calculations and power, and (3) institutional
accounts privileging the significance of institutional
structures and histories (March and Olsen 1989,1995,1998,
Environmental accounts start with
society and portray institutional change as reflecting
shifts in the political institutions' functional or
normative environments. Each institutional form has its
comparative advantage, in terms of functional performance
or how well it "matches" normative
environments. In cases where processes of diffusion and
rational adaptation do not secure good
"matches", a process of competitive selection
governs which institutional forms evolve, flourish, decay
or disappear. Both structures and policies are largely
determined by environmental forces. Therefore, tinkering
with institutional arrangements will have little
independent impact as long as the underlying
environmental forces remain constant (Dye 1975:20-21).
This view is dominant when
European developments are seen as reflecting the
imperatives of international competition, technological
and economic globalisation and mass migration. It is
supported by market metaphors emphasising competitive
selection in an increasingly interdependent world.  Economic and social
integration, in the meaning of causal interdependence
among parts, dictate political integration, in the
meaning of structural connectedness and institution
One complication is that it is notoriously difficult
to specify an optimal political-democratic space (Dahl
and Tufte 1973). Another complication is that
environmental accounts seldom specify exactly which
changes in institutional forms shifting task environments
require and through what mechanisms environmental
pressure brings about change (Oliver 1991). For instance,
does global competition dictate the size of the European
polity? Is territorial enlargement a functional necessity
and, if so, which countries have to be included? Do
global functional imperatives dictate what Europeans are
going to have in common? A single market? Common
currency? A defense and security policy? A common defense
capability? An integrated public sphere and civic
society? A shared language? A collective identity? If a
widening and deepening of European cooperation is a
functional requirement, through which processes will this
The same questions challenge accounts that assume a
necessary adaptation to a normative environment of
universally legitimate principles and forms. Here, one
task is to explain why some principles and forms in a
culture attract attention and get support, while others
are ignored or turned down (Risse-Kappen 1994: 187). For
instance, how can we better understand the changing
mobilising power in Europe when it comes to concepts like
the market, democracy, welfare state, human rights, civil
society, federal state, governance by experts, etc.?
Another task is to specify what each principle, or
specific combinations, requires in terms of institutional
Strategic agency accounts understand
institutional change in rational-instrumental terms, as
reflecting the will, calculations and power of an
identifiable group of actors. Institutional design and
choice are solutions to perceived problems (March and
Olsen 1983, Olsen 1997a). This view is shared by
intergovernmental interpretations of European
institutional developments as the outcome of bargaining
between the major member states (Moravcsik 1998), as well
as accounts emphasising supranational or transnational
actors (Sandholtz and Stone Sweet 1998). Different
scholars favour different collective actors, yet, the
main focus is on human intention and power.
This is an account that entails two assumptions: On
the one hand, that institutional form is a significant
determinant of performance, and second, that human
choices are important determinants of institutional
forms. The former represents a view of institutions as
part of modern technology, as illustrated by mechanical
methaphors of institutions as "instruments",
"tools", "apparatus", and pieces of
"machinery" of democratic governance (Olsen
1988: 2). The latter conception is supported by a
democratic emphasis on having a "hypothetical
attitude" toward existing institutions, so that
citizens can choose the institutions under which they
want to live together (Habermas 1996: 468). In this view,
democratic politics is an important source for changing
long-lasting political relations (Shapiro and Hardin
For rational-instrumental accounts it is puzzling that
reformers are not more efficient in establishing stable
institutional arrangements. Institutional reforms do not
seem to reduce the demand for future reforms, rather the
opposite appears to be the case (Brunsson and Olsen
1993). Deliberate reform assumes motivation,
understanding and social control, prerequisites often
missing (among other places) in the context of
comprehensive European reforms. In the EU it is often
difficult to attribute institutional developments to
specific actors. Multiple and conflicting goals are
pursued. There is no shared vision of a future Europe and
how the EU should be governed, i.e. the "nature and
ultimate goals of the integration process" (Majone
1998). There is no shared understanding of institutional
requirements and possibilities, and no single central
reorganisation authority. A task within this perspective
is to specify what actors are trying to make
comprehensive reforms, under what conditions they are
able to achieve planned organisational change, and under
what conditions institutional reforms are producing
expected and desired substantive results.
Institutional accounts do not deny that
changing environments and reform strategies can be
significant for understanding institutional dynamics.
Rather, the argument is that processes of competitive
selection and rational design are less than perfect, and
that change cannot be understood on the basis of
knowledge about environments and actors alone. Concepts
like "historical inefficiency" and "path
dependency" suggest that institutional change is not
always fast and frictionless. The match between
environments, reforms and institutional structure and
performance is not automatic, continuous, and precise. An
institutional account portrays institutions as having
lives and deaths of their own, sometimes enduring in the
face of apparent inconsistencies with their environments,
sometimes collapsing without obvious external cause.
Change processes depend to a large extent upon the
internal constitutive characteristics of existing
institutions. Institutions authorise and enable, as well
as constrain, change. Therefore, there is a need for
understanding how institutions may transform, modify,
redirect and integrate, and not only aggregate, the
demands, interests, and powers of societal actors and
forces (March and Olsen 1984, 1989, 1995). 
A common criticism of institutional accounts, however,
is that they highlight continuity and have little to say
about change. To avoid this criticism, institutionalists
have to explain "dramatic and unexpected"
changes (Keohane and Hoffmann 1990:277), including why
major reform agreements sometimes are reached quickly and
often to the surprise of even those involved. A recent
example is the redefinition of the EU from a
"civilian polity" to placing security and
defence high on the common agenda and appointing Javier
Solana as Mr. CFSP.
More generally, institutionalists have to explain how
internal constitutive characteristics of existing
institutional arrangements (i.e. what integrates a
polity) affect the change-continuity mix and the form
change takes. Institutionalists have to explain why
institutions under some conditions adapt smoothly. There
is an incremental modification of internal structures as
well as environments (Nystrom and Starbuck 1981), as
institutions codify their changing experience, wisdom and
morality. Yet, under other conditions institutions are
rigid in spite of changing environments and deliberate
reform attempts. Institutions outlive their functional
efficiency as well as their normative support. They are
outdated, promote superstition and allow exploitation.
Then, change may take the form of great leaps, rather
than small steps. For instance, as crises have
accumulated, there have been critical junctures and
exceptional moments in state-building and nation-building
processes in Europe (Rokkan 1970,1999).
The EU, with its multiple overlapping centres for
policy-making, provides a site for studying institutional
impacts on institutional change. Developments in the EU
system of governance have taken place within a strong
nation state-based order, and not in an institutional
vacuum. From an institutional perspective properties of
this order -- characteristics of the basic units as well
as their relations -- are assumed to have an impact on
institutional dynamics. Such properties are expected to
have consequences for both europeanisation
processes, i.e. the development of new institutions at
the European level, and for how the basic units adapt to
europeanisation, i.e. variations in patterns of change
across nation-states and across institutions within the
same polity. An institutional perspective also suggests
that the relative explanatory power of domestic and
European institutions will change with changing levels
and forms of European integration and
Therefore, the EU polity is also well suited for
studying key issues in political integration: For
instance what are the relations between changes in, on
the one hand, the level and form of polity
integration and, on the other hand, changes in the
component units of the system? Do changes in the number
and types of institutional bonds among the component
units of a polity depend on how the component units are
constituted and how they "match" each other?
What impact do variations in the levels and forms of
integration at the polity level have on the component
units? Do polities based on different institutional
principles make different requirements on their
constitutive units (Brunsson and Olsen 1998, Olsen 1998)?
Do different types of international orders strengthen or
weaken different types of states (Ikenberry 1998:163,
The research task includes exploring the impact of
varying levels and forms of state-building and
nation-building, producing states with variable internal
cohesion, legitimacy and resources (Rokkan 1999). Given
variations in state institutions, traditions and bonds of
mutual loyalty and obligations, we should expect
different attitudes towards the level and forms of
European integration. Moreover, we should expect
different patterns of institutional adaptation and not
quick and strong convergence in institutional forms.
Finally, since the level and form of institutionalisation
vary across policy sectors, we would expect institutional
dynamics -- the key actors involved, the patterns of
change, and the explanatory power of institutional
factors -- to vary across policy areas. For instance,
patterns of integration can be expected to be different
in policy areas like security and defense than in
market-building processes. In the latter, supranational
institutions have over time won a key role which they are
not likely to achieve in the forseable future in, for
instance, CFSP. Better specified expectations, however,
will depend on detailed knowledge about institutional
variations across sectors.
As a further response to the charge that institutional
approaches have little to say about change, the next
section focuses in more detail on some internal sources
of dynamics, often ignored by static conceptions of
institutions: The dynamics caused by the fact that
institutional orders are never perfectly integrated.
The dynamics of imperfectly integrated political orders
A major historic development in Europe is the
emergence of differentiated and partly autonomous
institutional spheres with distinct logics of action,
meanings and resources. Each sphere legitimises different
participants, issues, and ways of making, implementing
and justifying decisions. Weber observed that
institutional orders are never perfectly integrated and
that modernisation inevitably produces imbalances,
tensions and collisions between institutional spheres
(Gerth and Mills 1970: 328-57, Weber 1978, also, Orren
and Skowronek 1994, 1996). An implication is that, in a
multi-level, multi-structure and multi-centre polity with
partly autonomous sub-systems, a key to understanding
institutional dynamics may be to study how institutions
relate, balance, collide and penetrate each other. If
integration, seen as coherence among the parts, is never
perfect, striving for coordination also becomes a
potential source of institutional change, at least in
political cultures favoring consistency and order.
The French institutionalist Georges Renard observed
that institutions are built around foundational
principles and organising ideas that provide "themes
of development" (Broderick 1970:xxiii).
Institutions strive to achieve ideals without ever being
able to reach them, i.e. there is a potential for change
because there are always discrepancies between ideal
abstract regulatory prescriptions and actual
implementation. In addition, the potential increases
because single institutions, as well as institutional
orders, are less than perfectly integrated. Institutions
have built-in competing and conflicting organising
principles, imperfections and conflicts (Broderick 1970).
All this suggests a dynamic, not a static, concept of
institutions. In general, it is difficult to keep
institutions constant by deliberately reproducing and
sustaining patterns of appropriate behavior. There are
continuous interpretations and reinterpretations of what
the rules of appropriate behavior are, how concrete
situations are to be understood, and how to map rules
onto individual cases. Change may follow as rules are
differently understood and as resources are reallocated
so that actors become able to follow rules differently.
Here attention is focused on processes of
Under some conditions, change results from "a
reality test" and a process of rational learning.
For instance, Europeans may learn about international
interdependencies and the loss of national "fate
control". If so, they may avoid wishful thinking and
concentrate on alternatives effective under current
international interdependencies. Improved knowledge may
also make them reconsider the balance between, and
justification of, the maximisation of market competition
and other social and political goals. Furthermore, actors
may adapt collective aspiration levels, internalise
dependencies and the interest of other member states. As
consequence, they may -- in the very long run -- develop
a European "we-feeling" (Scharpf 1999b: 283-6).
In brief, according to Scharpf, Europeans may come
together to cope with common practical problems, in
search for common gains. Yet, the process may foster a
sense of community.
This view is consistent with the idea that identity
formation has a strong cognitive component (March and
Simon 1958). But learning processes are not necesssarily
rational and interpretations of history are seldom
inherent in the events themselves. Interpretations and
their effects are influenced by institutional contexts
(March and Olsen 1995:44).
Most of the time, learning in densely
institutionalised contexts produce step-wise
reinterpretations. Still, in polities encompassing a
large r�pertoire of institutional forms, forms are
typically attended to sequentially or separately, rather
than simultaneously and in a coordinated way (Cyert and
March 1963). Shifting attention among forms, or a focus
on their relations, may therefore also trigger major
change. In polities where legitimacy is largely based on
habit and unreflected tradition, processes of reflection
and consciousness-raising can also produce sudden,
dramatic and unexpected change.
In the EU, generalised institutional forms shared by
member states compete with each other and with
national-particularistic forms of governance and
organisation (Andersen 1999). Which of several legitimate
forms are appealed to and evoked has significant
implications. For instance, an emphasis on the freedoms
derived from the market-building project, compared to a
focus on "a shared commitment to freedom based on
human rights, democratic institutions and the rule of
law" (Presidency Conclusion 1999), legitimises and
activates different participants and arguments, problems
and solutions, and institutional forms. Therefore, they
"bias" decision-making processes differently.
The dynamics of change will also depend on how
proposals are framed, typically an institution-dependent
process. For instance, a suggested transition of the EU
to a democratically-constituted federal state, where
German federalism "might not be the worst
model" (Habermas 1998: 161), can be discussed in
terms of the system's problem-solving capability (Scharpf
1999a,b). It can also be discussed in a powercontext; the
future of the realm of the political and majority
institutions, and the power implications of winning
popular elections in democratic societies (Rokkan 1966).
Furthermore, the proposal can be discussed in terms of
the development of democratic beliefs and practices,
public deliberation and decision making based on the best
argument (Habermas 1986,1998). While all are legitimate
standards of assessment, they typically suggest different
Change and stability are linked to definitions of the
self and the situation (March and Olsen 1998: 959), and
Union enlargement has been related to a normative, and
not only functional, definition of the EU. By formulating
its policy toward the Central and Eastern European
candidate countries, the EU has developed the
constitutive normative principles of the European
political order. By defining the fundamental norms and
operational criteria of eligibility for membership or
eligibility for assistance programmes, the EU has
discovered or defined important aspects of its self-image
and collective identity. Likewise, EU policy-makers have
developed a specific role, identity and rules of
appropriate behavior for the EU towards the CEECs. Examples are the notion of an EU
responsibility for the integration of the CEECs, the
attempts to delegitimise (or limit) narrowly
self-interested behavior towards the CEECs, and the duty
to accommodate the interests of the CEECs in EU policy
(Sedelmeier 1998,1999, Schimmelfennig 1999). 
A step-by-step commitment to enlargement as a moral
obligation has taken place -- in spite of vigorous
opposition and hard bargaining over the distribution of
costs, yet with no thorough debate about the EU interests
involved or detailed cost-benefit analysis
(Schimmelfennig 1999, Sedelmeier 1999). EU policy-makers
have been afraid that current institutions will not be
elastic enough for a major enlargement, but they have not
developed shared expectations about the institutional
requirements of enlargement. It has been argued that the
EU will work better with a small number of willing and
similar members (Wallace 1996b: 65). On the other hand,
enlargement to 12 members set in motion processes that
strengthened Community institutions (Keohane and Hoffmann
The lesson of history is also uncertain because
several of the new candidates are different from the
former ones, for instance in terms of inadequate
institutional capabilities of action, including a
capacity for deliberate institutional reform (Nakrosis
1999). One possibility is that the EU, facing candidate
states without or with weak democratic state traditions,
will be more able to demand institutional reforms than it
has been able to do so far in relation to current member
Most of the time, institutional actors take each other
into account. They routinely observe formal or tacit
boundaries of their legitimacy and an established
institutional balance. What happens, then, when the
ideals and the rival conceptions of political order
embedded in different institutional spheres come into
conflict with one another (Broderick 1970: xv-xvi)? Such institutional
collisions may, for instance, take place when
institutional striving leads to "overstreching"
one ideal and imposing principles and codes outside their
traditional legitimate sphere of activity.
The European context provides a laboratory for studies
of institutional collisions. This is so because the EU
represents a new type of combinations of institutions
with no dominant center of authority and power
(Jachtenfuchs and Kohler-Koch 1996, Wallace 1996a,b, Sand
1998: 285). Therefore, imbalances, collisions and
dynamics are likely. First, they are likely because of
the lack of agreement on the fundamental normative
principles and ends according to which the European
polity is to be integrated and governed. Secondly, they
are likely due to the lack of a clear and stable
allocation of powers between levels of governance and
institutions (Curtin 1997, Kirchhof 1999, Weiler 1999).
For instance, the European Union is a polity where
functional performance depends heavily on national
agencies, budgets and staffs (Wallace 1999). Tensions
between levels of governance, as well as between
territorial integration and functional integration that
do not overlap with territorial boundaries, are also
built into the major European institutions. The EU
provides a meeting-place for actors with different
institutional affiliations interacting within a variety
of institutional contexts, emphasising territorial and
functional concerns differently (Egeberg 1999).
Is the Westphalia system of spatial organisation then
seriously challenged by European functional organisation?
The dilemma is well known in organisational research. As
each part of an organisation adapts to its specific task
environment, there is an increasing demand for
coordination across functional sectors. At the same time,
functional differentiation and integration, makes such
coordination difficult (Brunsson and Olsen 1998).
Functional specialisation and differentiation and
institutional "fusion" between levels of
governance make coordination difficult at both the
European and the domestic level (Rometsch and Wessel
1996). So far, however, there is no agreement that EU
functional networks have produced territorial
disintegration, making the nation-state less unitary,
weakening the power of majority-based institutions as
well as coordinating agencies (Knodt 1998, Lange 1998).
Institutional collisions, including the relations
between legal and "living" institution, can be
better understood through studies of how institutions,
after they are formally and legally established, learn
their place in an institutional order. For example, the
European Court of Auditors, as a new institution, had to
"chart the difficult waters of interinstitutional
relations" (Laffan 1999: 255). Defining its tasks,
methods and organisational forms, was an important part
of the learning process. It had to establish its
credentials, discover opportunity structures, define
ground rules for interactions with other key
institutions, and establish trust and appropriate
relations. Search and learning processes took place in a
changing normative and cognitive climate, with increasing
concern for financial management and fraud, and changing
formal institutional responsibilities, legal status and
resources. Learning its place, finally, meant coping with
the dependence on the resources of National Audit Offices
and the need to develop cooperation and partnership with
domestic institutions jealous of their independence
(Laffan 1999: 256-8, 265).
The likelihood and consequences of institutional
collisions depend on properties of the polity. In tightly
integrated polities, characterised by high causal
interdependence, coordination and consistency among the
parts and structural connectedness, collisions may not be
very likely. However, if an external shock causes
collisions, change in one part of the system produces
fast and precise changes in other
parts. In loosely integrated polities, with modest causal
interdependence, separation of tasks, powers and
responsibilities, and with slack resources buffering the
various parts (Cyert and March 1963), consequences tend
to be local, with system impacts more modest and less
The Treaty of Rome and San Pietro in Vatican
Historically, Europe has been a key site of innovation
when it comes to forms of governance and political
organisation (Finer 1999: 14). Now, the region is again
experiencing a period of political experimentation,
innovation and transformation. Building European
institutions of governance may be compared to building
San Pietro in Vatican - Saint Peter's Basilica. Some
trace its history nearly two thousand years back, and
even the current (new) Basilica took generations to
build. There have been many builders, popes and
architects, as well as artists and workers. Plans have
been made, modified and rejected. There have been
conflicts over designs and over the use of resources.
There have been shifting economic and political
conditions and changing cultural norms, including
religious beliefs and fashions of architecture. Such
factors have affected both the motivation and ability to
develop the Basilica. Yet, as parts have been added,
modified and even demolished, the project has had
dynamics of its own, constraining both the physical
development, the use of, and meaning of, the Basilica.
I ask for mercy from those who know the history in
detail. The point of using the mehaphor is simply to
suggest that the processes underlying European
integration are not well understood. Furthermore, it may
simply not be possible to develop a single, coherent
theory of a complex historical phenomenon like the
European Union. As has often been the case historically
(Rokkan 1999), change in the European political order
seems to be an artifact of a complex ecology of processes
and trajectories, rather than the result of a single
dominant process. Again, it may be concluded that
"the historical processes by which international
political orders develop are complex enough to make any
simple theory of them unsatisfactory" (March and
Olsen 1998: 968).
Still, the evolving European polity provides great
empirical opportunities for those interested in political
development. Studies of the EU may help us understand
political integration and disintegration as universal
phenomena unfolding somewhat differently in different
territorial, historical-cultural and socio-economic
Studies of a polity with some special features, like
the EU, may improve our ability to differentiate between
forms of political organisation and their key dimensions
and characteristics. They may also make it easier to compare
political and governmental structures. In addition, such
studies may shed light on the consequences of
institutional form. That is, whether, under what
conditions, how and through what mechanisms institutional
form matters. For instance, when and how do institutions
fashion agency, so that constitutive institutional
principles and identities make actors follow a
rule-driven logic of appropriateness? When and how do
institutions have an impact upon policies, performance,
power-relations, and the democratic quality of
Inquiries of the co-evolving processes of institution
formation and adaptation at the European and the domestic
level may also improve our understanding of institutional
continuity and change. They may help us understand shifts
between periods of radical change and stability and,
thus, the shifting basis for periodisation of political
development. They may also shed light on variations in
developmental trajectories. Under what conditions do
institutions (and actors) gain and lose legitimacy and
support, or see their legitimacy-basis change? Under what
conditions are existing institutions overwhelmed by
environmental forces, for example shifting social and
economic interdependencies? Under what conditions are
different types of actors able to deliberately form and
reform institutions and achieve desired and intended
results? And the key issue of an institutional approach:
Under what conditions do institutions, and different
levels and forms of political unity, modify the change
potential of environmental forces and reform strategies?
This chapter is a prelude to answering such questions.
Exploiting the research potentials of the changing
European polity may contribute to more interesting
theories of governance, political organisation and
institutional change. In turn, such theories may give a
better understanding of the significance of Europe as a
specific context for political integration and
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University of Oslo
Phone: 47 22857678
Fax: 47 22857832
versions of this chapter were presented at the Workshop
on Research Directions in relation to Governance and
Citizenship in a Changing Europe, European
Commission, DG Research, Brussels September 8-9 1999 and
the ARENA Annual Conference in Oslo November 17
1999. I want to thank the participants and in particular
Svein S. Andersen, Morten Egeberg, Beate Kohler-Koch,
Ulrich Sedelmeier and Helen Wallace, for constructive
questions and suggestions. Thanks also to Peggy Br�nn,
Jeffrey Checkel, B. Guy Peters and Ulf I. Sverdrup and to
James G. March, with whom I have worked on theories of
formal organizations and political institutions for more
than 30 years.
. For an
overview of this debate, see Bulletin Quotidien Europe.
Also, Dehaene, von Weizs�cker and Simon, 1999. The
Commission's Reform Strategy Program,
"embarking on a process of fundamental reform"
will be published in February 2000
claims, with a reference to Etzioni (1966), that
"the boldest variant of functionalism actually
posits the existence of evolutionary trends: that in
reacting and adapting to its environment, humanity will
build for itself ever-higher forms of socio-political
organization, from tribes to baronies, from national
states to global authorities" (Ruggie 1998: 46).
attempts to typologise institutional approaches, this
interpretation is often placed together with "the
new institutionalism" in organizational sociology.
Such typologies overlook that the two takes opposite
views when it comes to the importance of internal
factors. The latter argues that: "Most of the
institutional change now occuring in any given polity can
be predicted more readily from knowledge of the wider
world environment than from an understanding of internal
structure" (Jepperson and Meyer 1991: 226). This
approach, emphasising the spread of a general world
culture, is closer to Weberian ideas of a general
rationalization and "disenchantment of the
world" (Gerth and Mills 1970: 41).
. Thanks to
Ulrich Sedelmeier and Helen Wallace for helping me
formulate this point.
suggests that collisions are likely to be most
consequential when they interfere with the reproduction
mechanisms of institutions (Thelen 1999: 400).
[Date of publication in the ARENA
Working Paper series: 15.01.2000]