Multi-level governance in rural development - experiences from the LEADER programme
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The present study uses the analytical framework of multi-level governance (MLG) to investigate the implementation of EU’s participatory rural development (RD) policy LEADER (Liaison Entre Actions de Développement de l'Économie Rurale" meaning "Links between the rural economy and development actions”) in Estonia, a country outside of the mainstream academic debates on MLG and LEADER. It provides insight into the restrictions on autonomy faced by the local action groups (LAGs), the local level implementers of the RD policy measure, at the doorstep of the 2014-2020 programming period of EU structural funds. Even though LEADER is well-known for its bottom-up approach and finding solutions to local needs based on local resources and potential, it is actually very much influenced by the MLG framework within which it operates as well as the rules regulating its implementation, which in practice makes the local level constrained in what it is and what it is not allowed to do. The thesis investigates why the implementation of RD policies may diverge from the originally devised policy at the European level. Based on MLG theory all the levels included in the LEADER governance arrangement – the European (the European Commission), the national (the Managing Authority and the Paying Agency) and the local (the LAGs) – are expected to have a role to play in shaping the governance arrangement. The study first ascertains the degree of autonomy the EU level has intended to grant to the local level for policy implementation. As the second step it compares the actual implementation of the LEADER programme in Estonia to the EU level intentions and identifies a gap in-between. The study identifies that the restrictions which are causing the constraints faced by the LAGs have been introduced by the national level, not the EU level, and that these national level restrictions are undue. Thus the research finally establishes that the sub-national level has less autonomy in implementing LEADER than the EU level had initially intended because of the way the national level is involved in the governance arrangement and the additional restrictions it has introduced. This confirms the hypothesis that the involvement of the national level plays the decisive role in determining the eventual form of the governance arrangement.