Our interdisciplinary research project focuses on the formulation and implementation process of the EU Habitats Directive – one of the core pieces of European nature conservation legislation. Intended to protect specific habitats and species on a transboundary European scale the directive directly bears manifold references to ‘Nature’ and ‘Space’. These spatial aspects and the multi-level character of the policy makes an interdisciplinary investigation from the perspective of Geographers and Political Scientists particularly promising.

The understanding of ‘Space’ and ‘Nature’ - two traditionally important concepts within Geography - has undergone profound changes in recent years. Human action in ‘Space’ and the human exposure to ‘Nature’ is no longer limited to physical-material components. Instead, the subjective perception, ‘construction’ and communication of ‘Nature’ and ‘Space’ play an important role. Similarly, the existence of objectively given (material) interests in political decision making processes has been questioned after the “constructivist turn” in political science. The impact of cognitive and normative ideas on political discourse and decision-making has increasingly been studied. The combination of these two constructivist perspectives and their deployment for the analysis of political decision-making structures in the European multi-level system are the main targets of this research project.

The implementation of the Habitats Directive and especially the selection of potential sites of protection have triggered a multitude of conflicts among the actors concerned. They include governmental actors reaching from national ministries to local land use planning authorities as well as stakeholders, such as nature conservation associations, farmers, land owners or outdoor sports representatives. The process of implementing the directive over several political levels, shall be reconstructed and analysed with a main emphasis on North Rhine-Westphalia. On the one hand we will reveal interaction patterns of the actors involved in the respective policy networks. On the other hand we will search for discursive patterns, which are used unconsciously, deliberately or even strategically. It will thereby be important to ask, which constructions of ‘Nature’ and ‘Space’ are used in the political discourse, which story lines have been established and which effect this has on the implementation process of the directive. Additionally it will be explored to what extent constructions of ‘Nature’ and ‘Space’ are dependent on periodic developments in terms of ‘life cycles’.

Thus this project follows two objectives: At first, the existence and relevance of the discursive categories ‘Nature’ and ‘Space’ in the political decision-making process shall be reconstructed. Apart from this conceptual interest, the project aims on an applied level to complement EU-oriented implementation studies by proposing constructions of ‘Nature’ and ‘Space’ as factors that help to better understand policy implementation within the multi-level system of governance in the EU.