The Principal–Agent Model, Accountability and Democratic Legitimacy

Part of the Palgrave Studies in European Union Politics book series (PSEUP)


This chapter explores the normative underpinnings of the principal–agent model. These are situated in Rousseau’s analysis of the representative democracy and Weber’s study of the bureaucracy. Whereas many of their arguments still maintain their value in present-day politics, the empirical reality in which these ideas developed has changed drastically. The rise of alternative forms of public contestation, and above all, the multi-level decision-making setting of the EU, begs the question for which contemporary debates the principal–agent model still holds moral sway. We argue that—while principal–agent analyses can benefit from an explicit normative debate—the model is too reductionist to provide conclusive answers to such debates.


  1. Adriaensen, J. (2016). National administrations in EU trade policy: Maintaining the capacity to control. London: Palgrave MacMillan.Google Scholar
  2. Andeweg, R. (2007). A comment on Auel, Benz, and Maurer. In B. Kohler-Koch & B. Rittberger (Eds.), Debating the democratic legitimacy of the European Union (pp. 102–110). Plymouth: Rowman and Littlefield.Google Scholar
  3. Andeweg, R., & Thomassen, J. (2005). Modes of political representation: Toward a new typology. Legislative Studies Quarterly, 30(4), 507–528.Google Scholar
  4. Blom-Hansen, J. (2005). Principals, agents, and the implementation of EU cohesion policy. Journal of European Public Policy, 12(4), 624–648.Google Scholar
  5. Bovens, M. (2007). Analysing and assessing accountability: A conceptual framework. European Law Journal, 13(4), 447–468.Google Scholar
  6. Brandsma, G.J. (2010). Accounting for input in comitology committees: An uncomfortable silence. Journal of European Public Policy, 17(4), 487–505.Google Scholar
  7. Brandsma, G.J., & Blom Hansen, J. (2012). Negotiating the post‐Lisbon comitology system: Institutional battles over delegated decision‐making. Journal of Common Market Studies, 50(6), 939–957.Google Scholar
  8. Brandsma, G.J. (2013). Bending the rules: Arrangements for sharing technical and political information between the EU institutions. European Integration Online Papers, 17(8).Google Scholar
  9. Brandsma, G.J. (2016). Holding the European Commission to account: The promise of delegated acts. International Review of Administrative Sciences, 82(4), 656–673. Google Scholar
  10. Busuioc, M. (2013). European agencies: Law and practices of accountability. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  11. Busuioc, E., & Lodge, M. (2016). The reputational basis of public accountability. Governance, 29(2), 247–263.Google Scholar
  12. Christiansen, T., & Dobbels, M. (2013). Non‐legislative rule making after the Lisbon treaty: Implementing the new system of comitology and delegated acts. European Law Journal, 19(1), 42–56.Google Scholar
  13. Delreux, T., & Adriaensen, J. (2017). Introduction. Use and limitations of the principal–agent model in studying the European Union. In T. Delreux & J. Adriaensen (Eds.), The principal–agent model and the European Union (pp. 1–34). London: Palgrave MacMillan.Google Scholar
  14. Elgie, R. (2002). The politics of the European Central Bank: principal–agent theory and the democratic deficit. Journal of European Public Policy, 9(2), 186–200.Google Scholar
  15. Flinders, M. (2004). Distributed public governance in the European Union. Journal of European Public Policy, 11(3), 520–544.Google Scholar
  16. Font, N., & Pérez Durán, I. (2016). The European Parliament oversight of EU agencies through written questions. Journal of European Public Policy, 23(9), 1349–1366. Google Scholar
  17. Franchino, F. (2002). Efficiency or credibility? Testing the two logics of delegation to the European Commission. Journal of European Public Policy, 9(5), 677–694.Google Scholar
  18. Gerring, J., & Yesnowitz, J. (2006). A normative turn in political science? Polity, 38(1), 101–133.Google Scholar
  19. Gilardi, F. (2007). The Same, but different: Central Banks, regulatory agencies, and the politics of delegation to independent authorities. Comparative European Politics, 5(3), 303–327.Google Scholar
  20. Groenleer, M. (2009). The autonomy of European Union agencies: A comparative study of institutional development. Delft: Eburon Uitgeverij BV.Google Scholar
  21. Huber, J., & Shipan, C. (2000). The costs of control: Legislators, agencies, and transaction costs. Legislative Studies Quarterly, 25(1), 25–52.Google Scholar
  22. Kaeding, M., & Stack, K. (2015). Legislative scrutiny? The political economy and practice of legislative vetoes in the European Union. Journal of Common Market Studies, 53(6), 1268–1284.Google Scholar
  23. Kassim, H., & Menon, A. (2003). The principal–agent approach and the study of the European Union: Promise unfulfilled? Journal of European Public Policy, 10(1), 121–139.Google Scholar
  24. Lupia A., & McCubbins, M. (1994). Designing bureaucratic accountability. Law and Contemporary Problems, 57(1), 91–126.Google Scholar
  25. Mair, P., & Thomassen, J. (2010). Political representation and government in the European Union. Journal of European Public Policy, 17(1), 20–35.Google Scholar
  26. Magnette, P. (2001). Appointing and censuring the European Commission: The adaptation of parliamentary institutions to the community context. European Law Journal, 7(3), 292–310.Google Scholar
  27. Majone, G. (2001). Two logics of delegation agency and fiduciary relations in EU governance. European Union Politics, 2(1), 103–122.Google Scholar
  28. Mansbridge, J. (1999). Should blacks represent blacks and women represent women? A contingent “yes”. The Journal of Politics, 61(3), 628–657.Google Scholar
  29. Mansbridge, J. (2009). A “selection model” of political representation. Journal of Political Philosophy, 17 (4), 369–398.Google Scholar
  30. McCubbins, M., & Schwartz, T. (1984). Congressional oversight overlooked: Police patrols versus fire alarms. American Journal of Political Science, 28(1), 165–179.Google Scholar
  31. McNamara, K. (2002). Rational fictions: Central Bank independence and the social logic of delegation. West European Politics, 25(1), 47–76.Google Scholar
  32. Miller, G. (2005). The political evolution of principal–agent models. Annual Review of Political Science, 8, 203–225.Google Scholar
  33. Moravcsik, A. (2002). Reassessing legitimacy in the European Union. Journal of Common Market Studies, 40(4), 603–624.Google Scholar
  34. Naurin, D. (2006). Transparency, publicity, accountability—The missing links. Swiss Political Science Review, 12(3), 90–98.Google Scholar
  35. Philp, M. (2009). Delimiting democratic accountability. Political Studies, 57(1), 28–53.Google Scholar
  36. Piattoni, S. (2013). Representation as delegation: A basis for EU democracy? Journal of European Public Policy, 20(2), 224–242.Google Scholar
  37. Pitkin, H. (1967). The concept of representation. Berkeley: University of California Press.Google Scholar
  38. Pollack, M. (1997). Delegation, agency, and agenda setting in the European Community. International Organization, 51(1), 99–134.Google Scholar
  39. Pollack, M. (2003). Control mechanism or deliberative democracy? Two images of comitology. Comparative Political Studies, 36(1–2), 125–155.Google Scholar
  40. Powell, G. (2004). Political representation in comparative politics. Annual Review of Political Science, 7, 273–296.Google Scholar
  41. Przeworski, A., Stokes, S., & Manin, B. (1999). Democracy, accountability, and representation (Vol. 2). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  42. Reichert, M., & Jungblut, B. (2007). European Union external trade policy: Multilevel principal–agent relationships. Policy Studies Journal, 35(3), 395–418.Google Scholar
  43. Rodrik, D. (2004). Industrial policy for the twenty-first Century. Cambridge: Harvard University.Google Scholar
  44. Risse, T. (2015). A community of Europeans? Transnational identities and public spheres. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.Google Scholar
  45. Risse, T., & Kleine, M. (2007). Assessing the legitimacy of the EU’s treaty revision methods. Journal of Common Market Studies, 45(1), 69–80.Google Scholar
  46. Rousseau, J. (1973 [1779]). The social contract, or principles of political right. Book II. Translated by G. Cole. London: J.M. Dent & Sons.Google Scholar
  47. Scharpf, F. (1999). Governing in Europe: Effective and democratic?. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  48. Schillemans, T. (2008). Accountability in the shadow of hierarchy: The horizontal accountability of agencies. Public Organization Review, 8(2), 175–194.Google Scholar
  49. Schillemans, T., & Busuioc, M. (2015). Predicting public sector accountability: From agency drift to forum drift. Journal of Public Administration Research and Theory, 25(1), 191–215.Google Scholar
  50. Shapiro, M. (1997). The problems of independent agencies in the United States and the European Union. Journal of European Public Policy, 4(2), 276–277.Google Scholar
  51. Shepsle, A., & Bonchek, M. (1997). Analyzing politics: Rationality, behavior, and institutions. New York: W. W. Norton & Co.Google Scholar
  52. Spence, M., & Zeckhauser, R. (1971). Insurance, information, and individual action. The American Economic Review, 61, 380–387.Google Scholar
  53. Steunenberg, B. (2010). Is big brother watching? Commission oversight of the national implementation of EU directives. European Union Politics, 11(3), 359–380.Google Scholar
  54. Strøm, K., Müller, W., & Bergman, T. (Eds.). (2006). Delegation and accountability in parliamentary democracies. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  55. Thatcher, M., & Sweet, A. (2002). Theory and practice of delegation to non-majoritarian institutions. West European Politics, 25(1), 1–22.Google Scholar
  56. Van de Steeg, M. (2012). The making of a European public sphere: Media discourse and political contention. West European Politics, 35(2), 426–427.Google Scholar
  57. Weber, M. (1978). Economy & society: An outline of interpretive sociology. Edited by G. Roth and C. Wittich, Translated by E. Fishoff et al. Berkeley: University of California Press.Google Scholar
  58. Zwaan, P., van Voorst, S., & Mastenbroek, E. (2016). Ex post legislative evaluation in the European Union: Questioning the usage of evaluations as instruments of accountability. International Review of Administrative Sciences, 82(4), 674–693. Google Scholar

Copyright information

© The Author(s) 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Utrecht UniversityUtrechtThe Netherlands
  2. 2.Maastricht UniversityMaastrichtThe Netherlands

Personalised recommendations