chapter  9
15 Pages

Executive power and accountability in the European Union


One of the defining characteristics of the EU is the delegation of executive power to supranational actors, notably the European Commission.1 Breaking with the general pattern in international cooperation, the member states of the EU in the 1950s chose to confer extensive executive responsibilities on a supranational secretariat, the Commission. Over the years, these powers have been a contributing factor in the deepening of European integration, due to the policy entrepreneurship in which the Commission has engaged. These powers have also been the subject of a long-standing debate in integration studies on the relative autonomy of the Commission from the member states. Since the mid-1990s, however, we have witnessed the emergence of a dis-

tinct field of research on executive politics, in which the focus is on issues of delegation, agency, and accountability. This field has developed in parallel with an increasing tendency to conceptualise the EU as a political system, rather than as a case of regional integration. Political developments in Europe have furthermore been such as to make the study of executive politics increasingly central to a general understanding of EU politics. In prior years, for instance, the Commission had been the sole supranational body invested with executive powers. In the mid-1990s, however, the member states began establishing a growing number of European regulatory agencies. On 1 January 1999, moreover, they conferred exclusive authority over monetary policy on the European Central Bank (ECB). The political debate about democracy and legitimacy in the EU also grew more intense in the late 1990s, raising questions about the accountability of the EU’s supranational executives. The term ‘executive power’ is derived from the classical constitutional

framework, wherein the legislature decides, the executive enacts, and the judiciary adjudicates. Whereas these powers, in some political systems, are each concentrated in the hands of a specific political actor, the EU boasts a more complex division of power, not least in regard to the organisation of the executive. In the EU, namely, executive power is vested both in the member states (each of which is responsible for implementing EU legislation through its own bureaucracy) and in several supranational organs (each of which has been delegated important competencies in the formulation and enactment of

been My attentions in this chapter are focused exclusively on the three main

instances of supranational executive power in the EU: the Commission, the ECB, and the European regulatory agencies. More specifically, I concentrate on the delegation of executive power and the checks placed on its exercise, with a particular focus on the implications thereof for accountability. What powers have been delegated, and why? What kinds of mechanisms are in place for overseeing executive power, and why? To what extent does the resulting pattern of delegation and oversight present a problem for accountability? In addressing these questions, I draw on the increasingly voluminous empirical and theoretical literature on this topic. I conclude that executive power in the EU is subject to a variegated pattern of oversight and accountability. The Commission and the European agencies operate within relatively tight constraints. The ECB, however, enjoys extensive discretion in the exercise of its powers. The question of whether or not this pattern is cause for concern – in terms of its impact on democratic accountability – is the subject of normative debate. This chapter proceeds along the following steps. In the section that fol-

lows, I describe how issues of delegation, oversight, and accountability are addressed by scholars who take positive and normative approaches to executive politics. In the subsequent three sections, I account for the principal patterns and points of contention with regard to the Commission, the ECB, and the European agencies as executive actors. Finally, I summarise the argument and lay out its verdict on the issue of accountability in EU politics.