8 min read — Analysis | EU | Legislation

Achieving Effective Policy Advising in the EU: Its Challenges and the European Green Deal

Policy advising plays an exceptionally crucial role in the EU’s legislative process and represents a pivotal instrument in the production of quality policy. Yet, because of the EU’s specific features and the alternative interests within politics, achieving effective policy advising is no easy task, particularly for the European Green Deal.
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By Francesco Bernabeu Fornara – Director for EU Law | Editor-in-Chief

July 9, 2024 | 16:15


All polities make use of some form of policy advising. That is, the activity where experts offer advice to policy-making institutions like the EU regarding how best to produce and implement legislation and policy.

For intergovernmental organisations (IGOs), expert policy advising plays an exceptionally central role; not only because transnational governance presupposes complex interdependencies, but also because IGOs become particularly influential when independent expertise is employed. Indeed, expert policy advice often aids IGO executive bureaucracies in persuading member states and allows for leeway for autonomy by framing initiatives as undeniably needed.

At the European Union (EU), policy advising becomes even more indispensable. Besides the aforementioned, the EU is also involved in highly regulatory policy-making, crucially necessitating technical expertise. Moreover, because the EU suffers a deficit of ‘input’ (ie., direct democratic) legitimacy, it unofficially resorts to independent evidence-based policy-making as an alternative, relying on ‘output’ legitimacy (ie., legitimacy based on performance from quality policy rather than political agenda).

More generally, expert advice in most polities is an integral part to the policy-making process. Policy advising is influential in shaping opinions, helps counterbalance non-evidence-based knowledge consumed by politicians (eg., from media), and supports the assessment of policy implementation. Still, achieving effective EU policy advising is not without its challenges.

The EU’s knowledge regime

Unlike most nation states, the EU does not oversee its own comprehensive ‘knowledge regime’. That is, ‘the range of organisations and institutions [such as universities and think tanks] that produce and disseminate policy-relevant knowledge’ as well as the governance thereof. Though the number of EU-specific knowledge institutions has gradually increased, the EU’s own knowledge regime’s comprehensiveness still lags behind those of Member States. This has led the EU to creatively resort to other mechanisms of relevant expert knowledge production, such as through the ‘borrowing’ of national experts on temporary and often informal bases to form ‘expert groups’ tasked with policy advice. Indeed, in a study examining over 1200 Commission expert groups, 80% of them included national civil servants.

Notwithstanding, the Commission has attempted to increase its in-house policy advising capabilities (such as with its ‘Joint Research Centre’), and expert groups are an effective method at bringing Member States on board policy proposals (whether because they give the impression of independence or because they are often backed by national officials). Nevertheless, there seems to be a disproportionate balance between the particular necessity for policy advising at the EU and the availability and governance of a knowledge regime at the European-level — evidenced by the unconventional measures the EU has resorted to.

Data availability and accessibility

In a similar vein is the issue of data availability and accessibility. After all, policy advisors are only as valuable as the data available to them. Not only does the availability of data differ across policy fields, but accessibility thereof varies across countries (often due to deviations in data privacy protection).  For instance, while Denmark and Austria have policies open to offering wide arrays of data for scientific purposes, Germany has traditionally been reluctant to do the same. This is particularly significant as EU policies are normally destined to impact Union territory equally. And with policy advising conventionally being a practice of offering multifactorial analyses, data availability divergences across policy fields has the tendency to open the floodgates to uncertainties where clarity is expected from law-makers.

The EU has passed legislation to address such shortfalls by facilitating and expanding data use. The European Data Act and Data Governance Act are two examples: the former harmonises rules on the accessibility of data and the latter seeks to streamline data sharing, through the removal of border obstacles and the setup of mechanisms therefor. Still, due to the EU’s competence scope, it seems a foregone conclusion that divergences in data availability, particularly between states, will persist, hindering an otherwise more effective EU policy advising.

Balancing clarity and uncertainty

As alluded, such challenges are compounded by their tendency to create undesirable uncertainty in policy advice. This is in turn worsened by the fact that, as has been proven, the clearer policy-advisers’ recommendations are, the more influence they have on policy-makers. The inconvenient question is thus begged: in an activity that is expected to offer policy guidance, how should policy-advisors balance the ethical responsibility to be candid and transparent with their uncertainties while still offering clarity in order for their recommendations to be properly considered by policy-makers? With EU policy traditionally being complex and regulatory, there seems to be no clear answer, one which if there was, will depend on the good faith for dialogue from both policy -makers and -advisors.

Managing politicians, lobby groups, and political agendas

In line with this is the broader political dimension which tends to demean the policy-advice authority. It comes as no surprise that producing quality policy is not the sole, or often prime, interest of politicians. The following names some examples where such interests clash: (1) political agendas increasingly emphasise short-term successes, with little regard to its pay-off; (2) electoral cycles are usually the prime focus of politicians; (3) politicians often push for policies to be implemented as fast as possible, hindering effective policy consultation and evaluations; and (4) lobby groups are often more influential with politicians than policy-advisers, pushing for legislations which favour individual interests. Indeed, policy-advisors, through no fault of their own, rather often offer recommendations which are not the most appealing to — nor placed high on the priority list of — politicians. The political dimension hence adds another layer of challenge to policy advisors in their efforts to offer their best possible independent advice.

Policy advising in the European Green Deal

As if it could not get any worse for policy advisors, effective policy advising in the European Green Deal (EGD) is arguably yet an additional level of difficulty. Being a global pioneer in the green transition means treading uncharted territory. Not only does this imply a highly diminished pool of available data experts may rely on to support their recommendations, it also exacerbates the degree of uncertainty policy-advisers will inevitably have with their advice, which may in turn further diminish politicians’ considerations thereof.

That said, some tools may be employed to alleviate some difficulties. Using counterfactual analyses (ie., outlining the consequences of not implementing certain policies) has shown to better persuade politicians. Expanding research centres, particularly in-house ones for more governance, may also serve as an effective method at increasing relevant available data for policy-advisors’ use. Expanding the ‘Environment and Climate Change’ department at the Commission’s Joint Research Centre may be a start. All in all, the provision of effective EGD policy advice boils down to addressing existing shortcomings in the present policy advising mechanisms (such as those aforementioned), while taking into account the EGD’s unique challenges (eg., diminished data availability). Notwithstanding, it goes without saying that policy advising — especially at the EU — is no easy task.

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Disclaimer: While Euro Prospects encourages open and free discourse, the opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or views of Euro Prospects or its editorial board.

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