Theme 3.3: Political Leadership in EU agencies

This theme:

  • Focuses on the role of EU agencies in taking on political leadership roles as part of transboundary crisis management
  • Develops a biographical & survey-based database to enhance our understanding as to ‘who governs’ EU agencies
  • Offers an in-depth case-study of the crisis management capacities of the European Central Bank, the European Food Safety Authority and the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control.

In the past decades, the European Union has initiated a set of decentralized and executive agencies, which are playing an increasingly important role in the management of transboundary threats. From the European Medicines Agency (EMA), to the European Policy Agency (EPA) or the Research Executive Agency (REA), these compose currently a varied group of about 50 agencies mainly funded by the European Union having to some extent significant regulatory and/or executive responsibilities.

These agencies are non-majoritarian institutions, i.e. organizations that do not have a direct elected mandate, and many enjoy arm-length supervision by the EU institutions, mainly by the European Commission (but not only, as far as often they are accountable to the European Parliament in some degree). Some agencies have strong rules to protect its independence, in particular the European Central Bank (ECB), while others have more standard procedures to isolate professionals ruling the agencies from the political processes (as fixed term mandates). In general, these agencies have significant administrative independence vis-à-vis European political institutions that arguably have a democratic mandate, either the European Council (via national elections) or the European Parliament (via direct elections).

The context of the financial crisis has made the European Central Bank (ECB) arguably the most prominent actor in the EU-agency universe. Its Treaty base provides a number of institutional and organizational protections that allow decision-making without fear of reprisals by national governments. The other European-wide agencies, many of regulatory nature, may have a less strong, but nevertheless analogous, institutional profile – leaders have been granted considerable institutional safeguards against their removal. The various agencies, each specializing in one particular policy area, operate in a range of activities, representing a range of technical, scientific or managerial EU bodies that help the EU institutions make and implement policies In this context, agencies are directly involved in public policy making and also in policy implementation. Thus, when there is a situation creating potential risk for the population, for example, an unknown food product creating a new disease having an European reach, or a plane incident related to flight transit regulation in Europe, European agencies responsible for these policy areas emerge to the forefront in media attention, and their officers should be capable to manage such crisis beyond their usual technocratic behaviour.

The rise of the agency model at the EU-level raises considerable issues for the study of political leadership in general, and for crisis management capacity in particular. One is that we know little about the institutional variations across agencies, with diversity and complexity arguably standing in the way of legitimacy. Second, we lack knowledge about ‘who governs’ in these agencies, in other words, who exercises political leadership in times of crisis in these agencies. Agency leaders are political leaders not in the sense of standing apart from partisan politics. Their legitimacy is based on their professional expertise. However, agencies take political choices in that they partake in EU-wide decision-making, exercise value choices, and take decisions with significant implications for European societies. The most prominent example is arguably Mario Draghi’s prominent role in ‘rescuing’ the Euro-zone. Less visible, but nevertheless critical has been the role of different agencies in other policy domains. These agencies could therefore be said to have more power than we might expect – they exercise crisis management capacities without necessarily controlled by any any democratic checks and balances.

This sub-theme develops understanding of how political crisis leadership in agencies is exercised. It looks at the effects on legitimacy of their crisis management actions. It takes into account that agency leaders have to deal with demands for technical competency (in often controversial areas) with demands for accountability, to other EU institutions, interested constituencies, and the wider public.

To do so, this theme is interested in a) the agencies leaders themselves, and their background, b) their resources (formal and informal) and c) how agency leaders use various formal and informal capacities to identify and respond to crises, and how they mobilise constituencies and the wider public. This agenda is being explored through a survey of agency leaders (the top three ranks of each organization) that establishes how crisis management capacities are perceived across different agencies. An in-depth case study investigates decision-making during transboundary crises by assessing the ways in which the European Central Bank, the European Food Safety Authority and the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control have identified crisis, have developed responses, mediated with other actors, and communicated. As to the ECB, we consider the period from 2011-2013 in which the Euro suffered strong speculative pressures which spread across many European countries, and the ECB assumed a clear policy leadership in curbing those attacks. As to the EFSA, we examine its role in the case of the cucumber crisis in Europe in 2011 and the related tensions between German and Spanish authorities regarding blame-avoidance. The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) is being investigated in terms of how threats to human health posed by infectious diseases are identified and communicated, as well as discussed with member states’ health protection agencies.

Theme co-ordinator: Jacint Jordana, IBEI




EU Agencies: A Literature Review

The TransCrisis research themes:

Themes: Introduction

Theme 1: Understanding transboundary crisis management

Theme 2: Studying political leaders in the financial crisis

Theme 3: Political leadership, EU institutions and transboundary crisis management capacity

Theme 3.1 Crisis Management Capacity in the European Commission, Council of Ministers, and Council of the European Union

Theme 3.2 Crisis Leadership in the European Parliament

Theme 3.3 Political Leadership in EU agencies

Theme 4: Interaction between EU-national administrations in times of crisis

Theme 4.1 Political Leadership and Crisis Management Regimes

Theme 4.2 Managing the Immigration Crisis

Theme 5: Political leadership, national politics, and transboundary crisis management

Theme 6: Political leadership and the ‘new normal’: developing transboundary crisis leadership capacity