About me

I am a Fellow of Worcester College, Oxford, where I teach EU law, UK constitutional and administrative law. I also teach environmental law at the ETH in Zurich. Through these positions, and my membership of several academic networks, I am able to engage in the interdisciplinary research and teaching that I am so passionate about.

My research interests centre on the legal management of complex problems by pluricentric systems, for example, the regulation of climate change by the European Union. This research focus has led me to establish substantive legal expertise in EU law, constitutional law and environmental law, as these areas of scholarship embody the types of institutional challenges that inform my broader research interests.

I strongly subscribe to the value of adopting an external perspective when analysing laws and systems of governance. I therefore incorporate methodologies from across the social sciences in my research. One of the key challenges of multi-disciplinary research is to maintain a firm grasp of all disciplines involved and to meaningfully translate definitions and approaches between them. I therefore do not pursue interdisciplinarity as an aim in itself but as a means to strengthen and enrich existing doctrinal legal foundations.

More detailed information about past and current projects can be found under 'Research'.

Academic Appointments

[09/2014 - present] Worcester College, University of Oxford- Tutorial Fellow in Law (EU Law, UK Constitutional and Administrative Law, Environmental Law)

[09/2012 - present] ETH Zurich - Visiting Lecturer (Environmental Regulation: Law & Policy)

[Spring 2016] Visiting Professor Notre Dame University

[01/2013 - 01/2014] Vincent and Elinor Ostrom Workshop in Political Theory and Policy Analysis - Postdoctoral Researcher



"Polycentricity in the European Union"
(Cambridge University Press, 2019)

Information from Cambridge University Press


"The Allocation of Regulatory Competence in the EU Emissions Trading Scheme"
(Cambridge University Press, 2014)

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For a complete list of my publications, download my CV:
or visit my SSRN page


Research overview

My research centres on the legal management of complex problems by pluricentric systems. My body of work is distinctive across three parameters.

First, with respect to each substantive area of law, I adopt an institutional approach. This means that I am primarily interested in the institutional setting of rules, and their respective interaction, not only the content of individual rules. I believe the latter is a result of the former and therefore can only be properly understood when seen in this context.

Second, I strongly subscribe to the value of adopting an external perspective when analysing laws and systems of governance. I therefore incorporate methodologies from across the social sciences in my research as a means to strengthen and enrich existing doctrinal legal foundations.

Third, my research into pluricentric systems, federal, multi-level, polycentric or otherwise, is agnostic as to the best level of governance. Approaching the regulation of each complex regulatory problem without such a set preference has allowed me to question existing dogmas regarding inter alia the centrality of the nationstate and perceived limits to individual and local selfgovernance.

This interdisciplinary, institutional, and unprejudiced methodology is reflected throughout my work. A few representative projects are described below.

A Polycentric Europe?

Post-doctoral research funded by the Niels Stensen Fellowship
[Vincent and Elinor Ostrom Workshop in Political Theory and Policy Analysis in Bloomington, Indiana (USA)].

As a descriptive theory of governance, polycentric governance is characterized by the presence of many centres of decision-making, which are formally autonomous and may compete and/or collaborate under an overarching shared system of rules. Normatively, polycentric governance accommodates both representative and deliberative models of democracy by placing intrinsic value on individual self-governance without prescribing specific outcomes to the process of governance. The institutional set-up of polycentric systems aims to ensure balance between decision-making centres so as to prevent dominance of certain centres and safeguard continued self-governance. Adopting a polycentric perspective means to conceptualize society as a collection of rule-based interactions between individuals, shaped by individuals.

My polycentric research agenda has worked towards two aims. First, I seek to assess the extent to which the EU does, and could, sustain polycentric governance. In doing so, it seeks to offer an alternative theory of governance for the EU, as compared to existing pluricentric EU governance theories, specifically federalism, multi-level governance, constitutional pluralism, and multilevel constitutionalism.

The application of polycentric theory to the EU has been very limited: Vincent Ostrom commented on the European Union several times but never developing polycentric theory to fit the EUs particular context. More generally, polycentric theory has thus far primarily been used to explain (local) governance in the United States, and resource management by local communities worldwide. This can partly be explained by definitional issues that restrict the application of polycentricity as a theory of governance, which leads to my second aim: to expand the scope of application of polycentric theory itself.

The preliminary findings of this project can be found in the edited volume Polycentricity of the European Union, with Ana Bobic (Cambridge University Press, 2019).

Environmental Law & Policy

My environmental focussed-research started with my doctoral work (see below). I continue to publish widely on environmental law and policy, focusing primarily, but not exclusively, on jurisdictional issues and the use of different policy instruments.

Together with Arden Rowell, I am working on an exciting project called "Essential Environmental Law". This series of five books will set out the foundational elements of environmental law in key jurisdictions, including the United States, the EU, Brazil, China and India. The series is under contract with University of California Press. The first two books on the United States and the European Union are will be in print in 2020.

Competence Allocation &
Regulatory Functioning: A Study of the EU ETS

My PhD research examined how the allocation of competence at different regulatory levels affects the effectiveness of regulatory tools. This work builds on existing economic and legal theories regarding the benefits and costs of (de)centralization by distinguishing between specific regulatory competences – i.e. norm setting, implementation, and enforcement – and by making the interactions between these competences explicit. Environmental problems are particularly complex and often in need of multi-jurisdictional solutions.

I applied the theoretical findings of my doctoral work to climate change regulation within the EU through emissions trading. The deviations from the theoretically first-best allocation in the trading phases of the EU ETS can explain some of the problems in the earlier trading phases. In turn, these deviations can be explained by the political economy of the EU ETS, which shows that first-best allocation is hard to achieve during the foundation of a new regulatory regime due to the relative strength of certain stakeholders in the political process.

The results of this project have been published in the monograph The Allocation of Regulatory Competence in the European Emissions Trading Scheme (Cambridge University Press, 2014) and several other peer reviewed articles on climate change and environmental regulation.

Contact & CV

Download my CV:

University of Oxford website

LinkedIn profile

Twitter: @JosephinevZeben

Email: josephinevanzeben[at]gmail.com

Within regulation, the question of who does what is determinative for what is done and how.
In order to develop successful policy on Earth, we first need to disprove the belief that economist are from Mars and lawyers from Venus.
When we internalize environmental and social costs, 'expensive' abatement soon becomes more affordable than 'cheap' pollution.
De moderne wetenschapper moet niet bang zijn het podium te verlaten en tussen het publiek te gaan staan.
Robert Dijkgraaf