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date: 16 May 2021

Principal–Agent Analysis and the European Unionlocked

  • Tom DelreuxTom DelreuxDepartment of Political Science, Université Catholique de Louvain
  •  and Johan AdriaensenJohan AdriaensenDepartment of Political Science, Maastricht University

Summary

Principal–agent analyses have been frequently applied by scholars of the European Union (EU). The model helps to explain the reasons, modalities, and consequences of the delegation of authority from one (set of) actor(s)—the principal—to another (set of) actor(s)—the agent. Instances of delegation are omnipresent in the EU: not only is the EU founded upon the delegation of rule-making powers from the member states to the supranational level (European integration), but delegation is also frequently occurring from one actor or institution to another within the political system of the EU (EU decision-making).

Assuming that institutions are forums for strategic behavior by rational actors, the principal–agent model has advanced our understanding of European integration and EU politics by zooming in on contractual, dyadic relationships that are characterized by an act of delegation and the controls established to minimize the risks related to delegation. Principal–agent analyses can be used to address two types of questions: first, on why and how the principal delegates authority to the agent (i.e., the “politics of delegation”), and second, on the ensuing game between the principal and the agent when the latter executes the delegated task on behalf of the former (i.e., the “politics of discretion,” or “post-delegation politics”).

Principal–agent analyses in the field of EU politics have been conducted using a diverse set of methods and research designs, with large-N quantitative studies on how principals control their agent, over in-depth case studies of the formers’ motives for delegation, to more recent attempts to capture post-delegation politics and the agent’s discretion in a systematic and quantitative way. Under the condition that the principal–agent model is applied carefully and for questions on the politics of delegation and the politics of discretion, it remains a useful tool to understand contemporary EU politics.

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