24th Mar 2018

EU agencies 'add value' but there is no 'master plan'

  • The European Chemicals Agency, based in Finland, one of many EU agencies. (Photo: European Chemicals Agency)

The European Union has some 44 agencies entities, but there is no “master plan” of what policy area gets an agency and when or if or how they can be abolished, said the future chairman of the EU Agencies Network this week.

“There was never a master plan to say: okay this is our policy field, we think there and there we could need an agency and there it's better to do it in Brussels or the member states,” Bernhard Url told EUobserver.

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Url, who heads the European Food Safety Authority, will take the helm of the network of EU agencies on 1 March 2017.

The group organised an event in Brussels this week, evaluating their work, as well as showcasing the diversity of established agencies.

Executive director of the network's current chair, Antonio Campinos, of the European Union Intellectual Property Office, said on Tuesday (6 December) that while EU agencies are “the familiar face of the EU for many Europeans”, there are agencies which are “largely unknown even at EU institutional level”.

There are agencies dealing with a wide variety of policy areas: there is an agency that deals with vocational training, one that monitors drugs and drug addiction, and one that aims to improve the living and working conditions of Europeans.

Yet there is some consistency missing.

While there are agencies dealing with policies on railway transport, maritime safety, and aviation safety, there is no agency for road transport.

“I think if you look at the history of how agencies were set up: most of the time there was an issue, a crisis, a shortcoming that policymakers in the Council and Parliament said: 'well, maybe this could be better dealt with by an agency',” said Url.

Campinos said the agencies were “delivering essential services on the ground for a relatively small proportion of the overall EU budget - less than 0.8 percent, to be exact”.

“Too often people do underestimate the benefits and the value of EU agencies”, said centre-left MEP Derek Vaughan from the UK.

Vaughan checked the performance of the agencies and suggested that the EU parliament signed off on their budgets.

“I was pleased to see they were getting better, they were getting more efficient, they were improving their services they provided,” said Vaughan.

Politics beats practicality

However, he also found that “there is a potential to say: maybe we could have less agencies in the future”.

Url noted that merging agencies “should not be a taboo topic.”

“The first question is: is the task that this agency has been doing still needed? If the task is needed, it has to be decided in which form,” he added.

“But it's a highly political decision, as we have seen. They tried to merge agencies, and then the member states come in. It's difficult.”

If agencies were to merge, national governments meeting in the council also need to agree.

However, they are unable to look at the agencies without taking into account the physical location of agencies spread across the member states.

“Member states will say: 'yes, it's a really good idea, we should look at the number of agencies, maybe we could merge a few',” said Vaughan. “But once you point at the agency in their country, then they change their mind. They always change their mind.”

Jan Ridzon, a Slovak member of the budget committee of the Council, said Vaughan was right.

“It is also about protecting certain national interests of several member states,” he said.

Another feature of some agencies is that once established, they quickly pick up tasks.

Alberto Pototschnig, director of the Agency for the Cooperation of Energy Regulators (ACER), told EUobserver that just months after his agency was established, it received an additional assignment: to ensure there was no manipulative trading on energy markets.

“The energy sector now is more dynamic than it has ever been,” Pototschnig told EUobserver. “There were tens of years when not much happened in terms of technology. Now we are at a time of great changes.”

Those changes and the EU's ambition to integrate energy markets will make it that an agency not hastily abolished.

“If the project of integrating markets in Europe continues … I think there will always be a role for some form of European regulatory framework,” said Pototschnig.

“It is very difficult for this European regulatory framework to be governed by 28, 27 or 30 national regulatory authorities agreeing on everything on a continuous basis.”


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