Thursday, October 1, 2015

The European Parliament oversight of EU-level agencies through written questions

Photo by Francisco Antunes
by Neil Vander Most

On Friday September 25th, 2015, the Department of Political Science and European Union Center sponsored a presentation given by Prof. Nuria Esther Font Borrás from the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona. Her presentation, entitled “The European Parliament oversight of EU-level agencies through written questions” details the interesting findings found in her newest publication in the Journal of European Public Policy this month. 

Among the EU’s many institutions, the European Parliament is the least understood, due in part to its complexity, uniqueness, and continuing evolution in political significance. Prof. Font and her associates cast light on one aspect of this organization, its ability to oversee and ensure the accountability of the many agencies that work with Brussels to help the European Union better serve the lives of its constituents. Prof. Font is particularly interested in the role that written questions played in this process. Asked by individual members of the European Parliament (MEPs), these questions are sent to the European Commission, where they are investigated until an answer is found. Prof. Font studied the characteristics of the MEPs that most frequently asked these questions, as well as which agencies received the most of them.

 Through conducting a thorough and compelling statistical analysis, Prof. Font discovers many interesting findings. She finds that MEPs who were in opposition parties in their national governments were far more likely to submit written questions than those whose parties were in power. Furthermore, she notes that larger and more socially salient (ie: frequently appearing in the news) agencies received more written questions than those who are smaller or less well-known.

 Prof. Font’s work help us better understand the complicated processes involved in European governance. The fact that MEPs in their national opposition are significantly more likely to pose written questions suggests these members are utilizing written questions to gather information, closing gaps between them and the better endowed competitor parties in power nationally. One would not expect to see national politics at play in a popularly elected branch of a European institution! This finding is a poignant reminder of the stubborn importance of national politics within the European project.

 Additionally, Prof. Font’s findings on which agencies receive written question oversight raises a number of thought-provoking questions. On one hand, it may seem appropriate that the largest agencies and those in the forefront of the public’s mind receive the most oversight, as their overall impact should be more clear and immediate to the average European. However, as Prof. Font herself notes, this leaves the constellation of smaller, less well-known agencies with little to no oversight! While individually these agencies may be small or less well-known, together they make up over 75% of all European agencies, drawing approximately half of all funding allocated towards agencies (Font and Duran, 2015). This lopsided allocation of oversight could negatively impact the performance and legitimacy of these important European organizations. Studies such as those done by Prof. Font and her colleagues are critical to better understand and improve the performance of political actors.

Cited
-Font, Nuria and Ixchel Perez Duran. “The European Parliament oversight of EU agencies through written questions.” Journal of European Public Policy. Published Online 9/18/15.

The author, Neil Vander Most, is a current Ph.D student at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.  

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