European Waves

National Interests or Transnational Flows? Legitimacy Underpinnings of the EU Environmental Policy

On September 11, 2019, the European Union unveiled the European Green Deal, as its most recent effort to tackle adverse effects of climate change and environmental degradation. Yet, it is not possible to leverage any adequate explanations for this transformative policy proposal without referring back to the legitimacy underpinning sustaining it. As long as the European Union continues to be a novel sui generis form of supranational political organization, questions regarding the legitimacy of policy action will continue to linger around. To that end, a coordinated environmental policy will remain bound to tensions and contestation derived from the contingent idiosyncrasies of each Member State. Tensions that are very visible in the domestic policies of Germany and France. In the case of Germany, domestic pressures from Green parties have shifted its domestic policies to the left, prompting rapid shutdowns of nuclear power plants rendering their energy needs more reliant on Russian gas imports.[1] Meanwhile, as of 2019, the French government had still instructed Électricité de France (EDF) “to explore the possibility of constructing six new reactors” in three locations.[2]

Thus, this article explores the transnational flows of research cooperation and climate activism underpinning the legitimacy of the EU environmental policy. 

Approaches to the legitimacy of environmental policy

There are two main approaches to explaining the legitimacy underpinnings of EU environmental policy. On the one hand, up until the 1970s, the main sources of legitimation fell within the Westphalian tradition of territorial sovereignty over natural resources enshrined in International Law.[3] These policies were characterized by adopting a ‘conservation-or resource-oriented logic,’[4] mainly concerning “[…] three issues namely, the rules governing the exploitation of certain resources, transboundary damage and the use of shared watercourses” across the Member States.[5] On the other hand, after the 1970s, risk management emerged as a new supranational source of legitimation.[6] In turn, this created a quest for “a stable relationship between humans and their environment”;[7] where market-based schemes, such as cap-and-trade, are pivotal for addressing environmental challenges.[8] An example of this approach is the EU’s adoption of the 2003 Emissions Trading System Directive.[9]

Both developments paved the way for the conceptualizing of New Environmental Governance (NEG), where sources of legitimacy rest in a “diversity of private, public and non-governmental stakeholders, who, acting together towards a commonly agreed (mutually negotiated) goals, hope  to be achieved far more collectively than individually.”[10] Moreover, following the propositions of NEG makes the sources of legitimation transnational in nature due to their dynamic flows and interrelationships.[11]

On a conceptual note, contemporary perspectives on legitimacy are divided into normative and empirical studies. In the normative sense, institutional legitimacy resides in the right to rule; thus, normative legitimacy is conferred by the established provisions and procedures of law. While in the empirical sense, this refers to when it is widely believed to have the right to rule, which refers to the dynamic relational process of legitimation between legitimacy-granting audiences and institutions of governance.[12] Traditionally these perspectives have developed in isolation from one another. Alternatively, Quack (2010) offers a transnational explanation for legitimation derived from the “legitimacy normative evaluations of legitimate rule-making by transnational governance institutions,” which consists of three elements: inclusiveness of participation, expertise-based effectiveness, and procedural fairness.[13] This perspective has some common ground with the definitions of input, output, and throughput legitimacy advanced by Scharpf (1999) and Risse and Kleine (2007).[14] This typology allows for the exploration of the process of legitimation of environmental research cooperation and climate activism.

First, consider EU environmental policy as a complex comprising multiple sources of legitimacy at different levels and degrees of nested authoritative figures where institutional arrangements interact dynamically. That is, different sources of legitimacy and legitimacy-granting audiences can co-exist at different points and levels of EU policy making exerting different degrees of influence. In turn, the legitimation of the EU environmental policy complex operates through expertise-based effectiveness, procedural fairness, and inclusiveness of participation. For instance, the SCENT Citizen Observatory project is an example of input legitimacy as it aims to engage citizens with environmental monitoring.[15] In this respect, environmental research cooperation and climate activism are institutions, from a sociological perspective, that encompass multiple other institutions and networks underpinning the legitimacy of the EU environmental policy complex. Nonetheless, this does not mean that they are always coherent or operate in a synchronic manner, rather, they provide clustered nodes of legitimacy granting audiences.

Environmental research cooperation and climate activism are subset nodes of dynamic transnational relations underpinning the legitimacy of the EU environmental policy complex. On the one hand, the process of legitimation of environmental research cooperation is endowed by the mechanics of regulatory science, which are comprised of expertise-based effectiveness and procedural fairness. Regulatory science provides the “stock of knowledge used by policymakers to promote goals such as protecting human health and the environment,” while the process itself remains open for scrutiny and can always be contested by ‘more sound’ scientific findings.[16] On the other hand, the process of legitimation of climate activism is endowed by the mechanics of culture, which are comprised of inclusiveness of participation. Cultural legitimacy refers to “the quality of being in conformity with the accepted principles or rules and standards of a particular culture” where authority is derived from internal validity.[17] In turn, when there is a mismatch between regulatory action and the expectations of legitimacy-granting audiences, protest or criticism arise to change policy outcomes.

European Environmental Research Cooperation

Environmental research cooperation has been at the heart of EU environmental policy development over the last few decades. Within Europe, there are two major developments of environmental research cooperation: EU-sponsored projects and organic institutional collaboration. On the side of EU sponsored projects, one prominent example is the European Environmental Agency (EEA), established in 1990, whose task is to collect information from different focal points across Europe and provide sound and independent information concerning the environment.[18] This information is managed through the Eionet partnership network, which integrates cooperation, content, and infrastructure.[19] Another more recent example is the Copernicus Climate Change Service (C3S) that started operating in the early 2010s.[20] The aim of this project is to provide “free and open access to climate data and tools based on the best available science,” thus making it an invaluable source for environmental studies, as it provides the common basis for research.[21] In turn, this has allowed for a new variety of research such as changes in the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide and methane, the management of water and land conservation areas, among others.[22]

On the other hand, organic institutional collaboration has also developed across Europe. One of this development is the Partner for European Environmental Research (PEER), which aims “to combine forces with a joint strategy in environmental sciences and to enhance research on ecological sustainability” by guiding policymaking.[23] PEER conducts collaborative research with its eight-member institutes in Germany, Netherlands, UK, Norway, Denmark, Finland, and France. Convergently, PEER works together with Alter-Net to promote Europe’s ecosystem research network. This type of cooperation reinforces a common core of research standards and practices that have characterized the evolution of environmental research across Europe.

Grassroots climate activism in Europe

The emergence of grassroots climate activism in Europe can be traced back to the 1970s within broader environmentalist discourses. This development was primarily caused by the increase of public awareness about the environmental damage caused by the modern economy, including the publications of Limits of Growth (1972) by D.L. Meadows and “The Tragedy of the Commons” (1968) by Garrett Hardin.[24] From this point forward, climate activism was characterized by three distinctive patterns of cooperation and synergy. On the onset of climate activism in the 1970s, activism across Western European countries converged with electoral gains and the emergence of green political parties; later there was a proliferation of grassroots organizations that expanded their membership across Europe; and more recently, there has been a resurge of activism associated with climate justice.

First, Western European countries experience a rise of environmental activism to contest the negative effects of the process of industrialization along with problems associated with deforestation and nuclear proliferation.[25] These demands were based on the noticeable rising levels of air pollution, water pollution, and food quality. In turn, some countries also face a rise of green parties associated with the demands presented by the environmentalist movements. This pattern is more clearly observed regarding Greens in Germany, who not only hold seats on all levels, from local councils to the federal Parliament”, and since the autumn of 1998, also have representation in the national government.[26]

Second, grassroots movements emerge across European societies. In a sense, environmental movements “become a truly international network, with intense cooperation across borders, the formation of international alliances and networks, and the establishment of coherent supranational organizations.”[27] One seminal example is the emergence and development of Climate Action Network (CAN) Europe in 1989. Nowadays, CAN is “Europe’s leading NGO coalition fighting dangerous climate change” comprised of “170-member organisations active in 38 European countries, representing over 1.500 NGOs and more than 47 million citizens.”[28] As part of their work, CAN elaborates comprehensive briefs on policy strategies and scenario planning for established objectives. One of their latest reports explores the compatibility of the Paris Agreement and the EU net-zero objectives.[29] This type of collaboration links climate activism through action networks of policy impact.  Another important organization is Friends of the Earth International (FoEI) was founded in 1971, which has mobilized people to protect the environment and create sustainable societies. Currently, there are 73 friends of Earth member groups with over 5000 local activist groups under its umbrella.[30]  In essence, there has been an increasing proliferation and establishment of diverse institutionalized forms of sustained activism.

Thirdly, in the latter part of the 2010s, climate activism has been associated with the discourse of climate justice. For grassroots climate action movements, “climate justice focuses on local impacts and experience, inequitable vulnerabilities, the importance of community voice, and demands for community sovereignty and functioning.”[31] This discourse interpretation is distinct from that of experts or elite environmental NGOs. A landmark of the climate justice movement is Fridays for Future, founded by Greta Thunberg, making her a catalyst of mobilizing public advocacy.[32] his pressure has already taken a toll on the policymaking of the EU. According to Klein et al., “The politics of the EC elections also favored climate action, with von der Leyen winning the EC Presidency in part through undertakings to Green, Socialist, and Liberal MEPs on climate” building onto the momentum of the previous decade.[33]


In assessing this, the legitimacy underpinnings of EU Environmental Policy transnational flows of research cooperation and climate activism come to fruition as two primary sources of legitimation within NEG’s complex. In this way, it is possible to distance legitimacy explanations from the traditional Westphalia approaches as well as supranational understandings that contemplate humanity as a whole. Thus, by understanding the EU environmental policy as a complex comprising multiple sources of legitimacy at different levels and degrees, one can attribute specific institutional legitimacy claims to its respective legitimacy-granting audiences.

[1] Wettengel, Julian. Germany’s dependence on imported fossil fuels. Clean Energy Wire. June 19, 2020. Accessed March 03, 2021.

[2] Frangoul, Anmar. “France’s love affair with nuclear power will continue, but change is afoot.” CNBC. March 10, 2020. Accessed March 03, 2021.,of%206%201%2C370%20megawatts%20(MW)

[3] Dupuy, Pierre-Marie, and Jorge E. Viñuales. “Emergence and Development of International Environmental Law.” In International Environmental Law, 3–26. Cambridge University.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid., 5.

[6] Mathis, Joseph D, and Luigi D.A. Corrias. “Law and Precaution in the European Risk Society: The Case of EU Environmental Policy.” Ratio Juris 30, no. 3 (2017): 322–40.

[7] Caldwell, Lynton Keith, and Paul Stanley Weiland. International Environmental Policy. Duke University Press, 1996.

[8] Holley, Cameron, Neil Gunningham, and Clifford Shearing. The New Environmental Governance. Routledge, 2012.; Holley, Cameron. “Environmental Regulation and Governance.” In Regulatory Theory, edited by Peter Drahos, 741–58. Foundations and Applications. ANU Press, 2017.

[9] Mathis, Joseph D, and Luigi D.A. Corrias. “Law and Precaution in the European Risk Society: The Case of EU Environmental Policy.” Ratio Juris 30, no. 3 (2017): 322–40.

[10] Holley, Cameron, Neil Gunningham, and Clifford Shearing. The New Environmental Governance. Routledge, 2012.

[11] Patel, Kiran Klaus. “An Emperor without Clothes? The Debate about Transnational History Twenty-Five Years On.” Histoire@Politique 26, no. 2 (2015): 191.

[12] Schleifer, Philip. “Varieties of Multi-Stakeholder Governance: Selecting Legitimation Strategies in Transnational Sustainability Politics.” Globalizations 16, no. 1 (January 2, 2019): 50–66.

[13] Quack, Sigrid. “Law, Expertise and Legitimacy in Transnational Economic Governance: An Introduction.” Socio-Economic Review 8, no. 1 (January 1, 2010): 3–16.

[14] Scharpf, Fritz. Governing in Europe: Effective and Democratic? Governing in Europe: Effective and Democratic? Oxford University Press, 1999; Risse, THOMAS, and MAREIKE Kleine. “Assessing the Legitimacy of the EU’s Treaty Revision Methods.” JCMS: Journal of Common Market Studies 45, no. 1 (March 1, 2007): 69–80.

[15] 2020, European Union’s Horizon. “About Scent – Scent,” 2020.

[16] Fernández Pinto, Manuela, and Daniel J Hicks. “Legitimizing Values in Regulatory Science.” Environmental Health Perspectives 127, no. 3 (2019): 35001.

[17] Kaime, Thoko. “Cultural Legitimacy and Regulatory Transitions for Climate Change: A Discursive Framework.” Carbon & Climate Law Review 5, no. 3 (December 31, 2011): 321–28.

[18] EEA. “About Us — European Environment Agency,” 2018.

[19] EEA. “Eionet Core Data Flows 2017 — European Environment Agency.” Accessed December 31, 2020.

[20] “Climate Change | Copernicus.” Accessed December 31, 2020.

[21] Buchwitz, Michael, Maximilian Reuter, Oliver Schneising, Heinrich Bovensmann, John P Burrows, Hartmut Boesch, Jasdeep Anand, et al. “Copernicus Climate Change Service (C3S) Global Satellite Observations of Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide and Methane.” Advances in Astronautics Science and Technology 1, no. 1 (September 24, 2018): 57–60.

[22] Ibid., 58; Thepaut, Jean-Noel, Dick Dee, Richard Engelen, and Bernard Pinty. “The Copernicus Programme and Its Climate Change Service.” In IGARSS 2018 – 2018 IEEE International Geoscience and Remote Sensing Symposium, 1591–93. IEEE, 2018.

[23] Partnership for European Environmental Research. “About PEER,” 2020.

[24] Kaelble, Hartmut. “Social Movements, Conflicts, and Civil Society.” In A Social History of Europe, 1945-2000 : Recovery and Transformation after Two World Wars, edited by Liesel Tarquini, 224–49. New York: Berghahn Books, 2013.

[25] Rucht, Dieter. “The Impact of Environmental Movements in Western Societies.” In How Social Movements Matter, edited by Marco Giugni, Doug McAdam, and Charles Tilly (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999), 204.

[26] Ibid., 213.

[27] Ibid., 206.

[28] CAN. “About CAN Europe,” 2020. Retrieved from, “Climate Change | Copernicus.” Accessed December 31, 2020.

[29] Bonadio, Jonathan, and Jörg Mühlenhoff. “A Net-Zero EU Is Possible Findings from NGOs’ Paris Agreement Compatible Energy Scenario Investing in Our Future,” 2020.

[30] FoEI. “Friends of the Earth International.” FoEI, 2019.

[31] Schlosberg, David, and Lisette B. Collins. “From Environmental to Climate Justice: Climate Change and the Discourse of Environmental Justice.” Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Climate Change 5, no. 3 (May 2014), 359.

[32] Martínez García, Ana Belén. “Constructing an Activist Self: Greta Thunberg’s Climate Activism as Life Writing.” Prose Studies 00 (2020), 2.

[33] Klein, Maren, Chloe Ward, Bradley Davison, Sophie Di, Francesco Mayot, Debbi Long, and Campbell Hughes. “Borders and Catastrophe: Lessons from COVID-19 for the European Green Deal.” Australian and New Zealand Journal of European Studies 12, no. 2 (2020), 6.


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