WHERE do we govern the Nexus?

Kirsty Blackstock, Kerry Waylen, Alba Juarez-Bourke and Keith Matthews

In Europe and beyond there is a growing interest in how we might manage and govern the water-energy-food nexus. The nexus is complex, contested, and difficult to resolve with existing solutions. Therefore, understanding and intervening in the nexus not only requires new diagnostic methods and combinations of technical innovations, but also needs decisions to take account of its many interconnections.  This is a challenge, as most policies deal separately with different aspects of the nexus.

To address this challenge, within the Horizon 2020 MAGIC-Nexus Project, we are assessing how policy-making at the level of the European Union may create opportunities to allow people to ‘govern the nexus’. Policies made by the European Union are a central influence on how we first perceive and then govern the nexus. In MAGIC we focus on five policies which have a direct link to the nexus: the Circular Economy, the Common Agricultural Policy, Energy Efficiency Directive, Natura 2000 – the Habitats and Birds Directives, and Water Framework Directive. These provide the greatest opportunity to ensure that ‘nexus-thinking’ shapes how land and waters are managed across Europe in the context of climate change and delivering sustainability.

Based on initial analysis of policy documents and interviews with those in the European Commission, it is clear that there is interest in the nexus approach. Yet, the nexus is a concept that no single entity has a direct mandate to deliver.  Therefore, coordination will be needed. There are several structures set up to encourage cross-fertilisation of ideas between Directorate General (DGs), to ensure that policies are coherent (in other words, there are no direct conflicts or unintended consequences that prevent policy objectives being met). These include the ‘Inter-Service Steering Groups’ (ISSGs), which ensure internal consultation across the Directorate-Generals within the Commission and these ISSG consultations inform the impact assessment of any policy proposal.  Furthermore, the role of Vice Presidents has also been created to encourage working across DGs at the highest level. There are also other potential venues for promoting a nexus approach, such as the Commission’s in-house think tank – the European Policy Strategy Centre, whose mission is to “innovate and disrupt”.

The policy formation and revision involves organisations outside of the Commission.  Could these help introduce the nexus concept into policy? Unfortunately, again, the nexus is relevant to many, yet central to none of them. Policies proposed by the European Commission are scrutinised by the European Parliament and Council of the European Union as co-legislators; and the Committee of the Regions, and European Economic and Social Committee as consultees. Within each of these structures, there are multiple committees, councils or sections, which tend to mirror the division of policy between agricultural, environment and development, so issues related to the nexus might be split across several committees. Likewise, these bodies are informed by Civil Dialogue Groups (CDGs) and at least three of these (CAP, Rural Development, Environment and Climate Change) are relevant to the nexus but there is no specific CDG with a focus on the nexus. Finally, the European Environment Agency (EEA) has an important role in informing policy making across the nexus through its European Environment - State and Outlook reporting. However, the EEA does not initiate policy and can only advise and support.

Overall, our initial analysis reveals that the space for governing the nexus is ‘everywhere and nowhere’. The formal procedures for development, evaluation and revision of policies at the EU level do ensure some coordination and a cross-fertilisation of views. However, at present no existing formal procedures drive a nexus-first approach to policy making. There is resilience in having multiple spaces from which interconnections can be considered, but there is also the danger of fragmentation and marginalisation especially if there is no influential body or formal process to which the nexus is central.

As previous editions have noted (see Nexus and the CAP) the policy process offers opportunities for both change and maintaining the status quo. Further research with those working within the European Commission will be required to understand under what circumstances we can shift to taking a nexus perspective. Would it be useful to create a new process that starts from a nexus perspective, with direct link to existing policy processes that shape our environment? Or would this become confusing given the already complex and crowded landscape of policy processes? As the project moves forward, and we start to discuss the results of the Quantitative Story-Telling approach with those responsible for the five main policies of interest, we will also explore strategies for using existing spaces, or developing new spaces, to help ‘govern the nexus’.

The idea of governing the nexus is still quite new, so it is exciting to be at the forefront of trying to overcoming these challenges.