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Financial Accountability in the European Union

“Good Administration” comes to Deusto’s European Journal

How much would you trust EU institutions if you suspected that they were badly governed? Not too much, I guess. Then why is it that arguments around EU democratic legitimacy tend to focus on better results (output legitimacy) or improved citizen participation (intput legitimacy)? This is likely because reforms aimed at improving public administration do not actually pay off in the short-term, and rarely within the boundaries of a single legislature; as such, political parties have little incentive to include reforms in their manifesto and eventual programme.

The ubiquity of output and input legitimacy has arguably resulted in a certain disdain on the part of scholars when it comes to recognizing a possible third source of legitimacy, whereby citizens trust a well-functioning system of institutions. Any perceived breach in the public accountability of shared institutions risks a loss of citizens’ trust. Breaches in good governance also directly impact support for the integration process. According to the last Eurobarometer (2014), mistrust of the EU reached 59% on average (peaking at 67%  in the country I know best). Along a similar line, 25% of EU citizens voiced concerns that EU institutions are essentially wasting taxpayers’ money.

Against this perturbing backdrop, we asked several authors to share their privileged insights into what “Good Administration” means practically in the context of the EU. Their recent contributions make up a special issue of Cuadernos Europeos de Deusto* , just published in early September. As the editor of this issue, I would like to share with you the main discussions at stake:

First and foremost, the debate on the EU’s systemic legitimacy cannot be divorced from the right to “good administration”, now enshrined in article 41 of the Charter for Fundamental Rights, which is legally binding since 2009. However, the practical implementation of this provision casts some doubts, especially with regard to the extent to which national administrations applying EU law can be held accountable or liable. Jesús Ángel Fuentetaja sheds considerable light on the nature and scope of this provision.

Stéphanie Novak‘s intriguing contribution to the study of transparency is no stranger to us. This author has exposed the “unintended outcomes” of transparency in the Council negotiations for quite a while now. In her article, she draws on empirical research showing that, in practice, transparency does not serve the interests of better accountability. On the contrary, transparency has added to the negotiation toolkit of Council representatives, who invoke it, or even dodge, it depending on their interests. Of course, this remains largely hidden from the public eye. All in all, Novak suggests that better scrutiny might be more easily achieved by examining actors’ practices and behaviour, rather than through stricter transparency regulations.

The influence of lobbies on supranational institutions is also a source of concern for those among us who care about systemic legitimacy in the EU. Too often, lobbies’ practices blur the dividing line between providing the Commission with an expert’s helping hand to establish the general interest, and determining the very direction of European regulatory policies. Recent times have witnessed serious examples of that risk, including even the forced resignation of a commissioner. A (voluntary) lobbist register was put in place by the Commission and the Parliament in 2011. The question of whether accountability has improved since then is examined closely by Raj Chari and Michele Crepaz. The path to perfection is never-ending, of course, but the voluntary register seems a step forward in the right direction.

Last, but by no means least, a paper from one of the eufinacco network coordinators. Paul Stephenson examines an issue with indirect, albeit essential, repercussions for financial accountability, namely, the appointment procedure of the members of the European Court of Auditors. In fact, there has been a debate around the qualifications and expertise of members since the body was set up in 1977. Accountability arguably starts with the competence and independence of those persons involved in control functions; therefore, it seems fitting to reflect on whether the current legal framework for the appointment procedure serves the purpose of financial accountability, or rather, meets goals of a more political nature.

With this quick review, I hope to have drawn your attention towards this issue on “good administration”. You will be happy to learn that Cuadernos Europeos de Deusto follows an open-access policy (with a six-months embargo). This means that papers should be released openly at some time in Spring 2015, so do not forget to drop by around here. You can already download and read all back issues for free.

* For those of you unfamiliar with this review, Cuadernos Europeos de Deusto is a pioneer among Spanish periodicals dealing with EU integration process. It is an independent peer-reviewed journal, published at the University of Deusto in Bilbao since 1987. Next year, Deusto will host the 45th annual conference of UACES.

By María-Luisa Sánchez-Barrueco (I tweet at @ml_san_barr)

This post was originally published at on September 17, 2014

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