Designing Accountability Regimes at the European Union Level

Nuria Font


The proliferation of agencies in the European Union (EU) during the last two decades has been one of the most remarkable transformations of executive politics and regulatory governance at the EU level, in the context of regulatory capitalism (Levi-Faur 2005; Levi-Faur and Jordana 2005). The first agencies were created in the mid-1970s and by 2014, following two more waves of agency creation in the early 1990s and during the 2000s, there were 35 operating on a stable basis. EU agencies cover a wide range of policy fields, including environmental protection, transport, food safety, occupational training, pharmaceuticals, internal market, asylum support, financial markets, defence and judicial cooperation. One of the most specific trends of EU agencies as compared to national ones is that none of them has been entrusted with genuine rule-making powers (Busuioc 2013). That said, agency configurations in the EU are manifold, with noticeable differences observed as regards tasks and institutional configurations. Some of these bodies have been endowed with quasi-regulatory functions, such as providing expert advice to the Commission and the member states in the crafting of new legislation, drafting of implementing rules, adopting binding decisions on individual cases, certifying and authorizing products and/or formulating product recommendations. Some other agencies exclusively perform informative tasks consisting of gathering, producing and disseminating scientific knowledge, whereas a third group of agencies are in charge of coordinating operations among the member states. Beyond these differences, the establishment of agencies reflects different institutional power balances, with the supranational-intergovernmental divide distinguishing between 'Commission agencies' and 'Council agencies' remaining important even in the post-Lisbon era (Busuioc 2013). This distinction reveals that the creation of European decentralized organizations is the outcome of a political commitment between EU legislators in pursuit of the double purpose of enhancing policy cooperation between the member states, and between the latter and the Commission, on the one hand, and creating decentralized bodies that are relatively autonomous from the Commission's influence, on the other (Chiti 2009).

Insofar as agencification in the EU has become an expanding phenomenon, research about the democratic legitimacy and accountability of non-majoritarian organizations has appeared in parallel (Busuioc 2013; Christensen and Nielsen 2010; Curtin 2007; Dehousse 2008; Lord and Pollak 2010; Pollak and Slominski 2009; Vos 2008). Remarkably, in her analysis of de facto accountability in a set of EU agencies, Busuioc (2013) also reports variations in formal accountability procedures. However, comprehensive studies measuring formal accountability arrangements in all EU agencies and providing explanations for variations in accountability regimes are missing in the specialized literature. This chapter has the purpose of covering some empirical gaps in current research. On the one hand, it measures the formal accountability of the complete universe of stable agencies existing at the time the study was conducted (see Table 6.2). On the other hand, building on the literature on delegation, it aims to identify the conditions under which EU legislators are more likely to design arrangements to hold agencies to account. In this chapter, EU agencies are defined as EU-level non-majoritarian, quasi-autonomous authorities that are created by acts of secondary legislation in order to perform specific tasks (Kelemen 2002). The chapter is organized as follows. The first section broadly examines the concept of accountability and deals with the theoretical debates on which this study is based, followed by an explanation of the operationalization of the variables. The empirical findings are then presented, and the chapter ends with a concluding discussion on the expected contribution of this study.

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