European Union Politics

Palgrave Foundations Series

by John McCormick

Chapter 14: Specialized Agencies

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European states have long cooperated on issues as varied as scientific research, patents, telecommunications, sports, higher education, postal services, and standardization, and have set up relevant international organizations. To these have been added more recently a network of specialized EU agencies: financial bodies such as the European Central Bank, regulatory agencies such as Europol and the European Food Safety Authority, executive agencies that manage specific EU programmes, and advisory bodies such as the Committee of the Regions.

There is no template for these agencies: some are part of the EU structure but others are independent, and most have been created only since the 1990s as the policy reach of integration has spread, and the need for better policy coordination has grown. Their size, reach and political role vary enormously: while the European Central Bank (ECB) is responsible for helping manage the euro, has a staff of 1500, and makes decisions that impact business and consumers throughout the eurozone and in much of the rest of the world, the European Training Foundation promotes vocational training in EU neighbouring states and employs just 130 people.

The creation of these agencies has happened mainly below the public radar, and yet their growth has been significant because they have given the EU more of the trappings of a conventional system of government. Their creation has meant adjustments for national government agencies in the member states, better coordination of policy across the EU, and a pooling of policy authority between national governments and the EU institutions. Questions have been asked recently about the lack of a grand plan for agency development, about how they should relate to equivalent national agencies, about how they should be managed and held accountable, and about how they will evolve in future.
  • As the policy reach and responsibilities of the EU have grown, so a network of specialized agencies has grown, including financial bodies, advisory bodies, executive agencies, and a mix of EU and independent bodies whose work relates to that of the main EU institutions.
  • Financial institutions include the European Investment Bank, the European Central Bank, and the independent European Bank for Reconstruction and Development. New regulatory institutions have been proposed as part of the EU response to the 2007–10 global economic crisis.
  • Other agencies have varying technical, managerial and executive responsibilities, dealing with such issues as vocational training, gathering environmental information, monitoring drug use, evaluating new medicinal products, and improving aviation, maritime, and food safety.
  • Executive agencies are set up for a fixed period of time with a specific task in mind, such as trans-European transport networks, education and training, and research.
  • Police and judicial cooperation have been encouraged and promoted by Europol and Eurojust, which are active in helping deal with serious forms of cross-border crime.
  • The two major advisory bodies are the European Economic and Social Committee, a policy forum for key economic and social groups, and the Committee of the Regions, which gives voice to the interests of local government.
  • The European Court of Auditors is the EU’s financial watchdog, charged with making sure that the EU accounts are correct. It usually finds that they are not.
  • Eurocorps maintains a multinational European military force for use mainly in humanitarian and peacekeeping operations, and the European Space Agency undertakes space research and manages Europe’s astronaut programme