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date: 26 March 2017

Public Administration of the European Union

Summary and Keywords

In a multilevel governance system such as the European Union (EU) policy processes at one level may create challenges and dilemmas at lower levels. Multilevel governance involves a multiplicity of regulatory regimes and succeeding governance ambiguities for national actors. These regulatory challenges and ensuring governance dilemmas increasingly affect contemporary European public administration. These challenges and dilemmas are captured by the term turbulence. The inherent state prerogative to formulate and implement public policy is subject to an emergent and turbulent EU administration. Organized turbulence is captured by the supply of independent and integrated bureaucratic capacities at a “European level.”

Throughout history (1952 onwards) the EU system has faced shifting hostile and uncertain environments, and responded by erecting turbulent organizational solutions of various kinds. Studying turbulence opens an opportunity to rethink governance in turbulent administrative systems such as the public administration of the EU.

Keywords: turbulence, independence, integration, capacities, multilevel, organization theory, European Commission, EU agencies, domestic agencies, public administration


The public administration of the European Union (EU) comprises administrative bodies at a “European level” supplied by administrative bodies at a member-state level. They work together in policy formulation and implementation. This multilevel administrative system is centered on the European Commission—assisted by EU agencies—which formulate and oversee what (formally independent) member-state administrations do and can sanction noncompliance. At the same time, this formal division of labor is blurred in many respects. This administrative system is discussed, and the concept of turbulence is applied to make sense of it conceptually. Since 1952 the EU system has faced shifting hostile and uncertain environments, and responded by erecting a variety of turbulent organizational solutions. Key features of this embedded form of organizational turbulence are discussed. Studying turbulence opens an opportunity to rethink governance in turbulent administrative systems.

In a multilevel governance system such as the EU policy processes at one level may create challenges and dilemmas at lower levels. Multilevel governance involves a multiplicity of regulatory regimes (e.g., Harlow & Rawlings, 2014) and succeeding governance ambiguities for national actors. Those regulatory challenges and ensuing governance dilemmas that face contemporary European public administration are unraveled. These challenges and dilemmas are captured by the term turbulence. The overarching challenge is: To what extent can member-state administrative sovereignty survive when faced with a turbulent EU administration? Phrased differently: To what extent is it possible to reconcile a strong EU administration while at the same time upholding strong national administrative control? An independent and integrated EU administration produces turbulence—and thus governing challenges—for member-state administration. The tension between, on the one hand, central steering and policy coordination across levels of government and, on the other, regional and local autonomy and coordination is a well-known topic in research on federal states and central-local relations within unitary states (e.g., Fenna, 2012). This “coordination dilemma” is a key aspect of the turbulence of the EUs multilevel administrative system (Egeberg & Trondal, 2015a).

Turbulence is not mere periodic and temporary exogenous phases that organizations encounter. It is also embedded into organizations. It is argued that understanding governance of turbulent administrative systems such as the EU necessitates analyzing the supply of organizational capacities of the EU administration. The turbulence of the system is assessed by analyzing degrees of institutional independence of the EU administration (Verhoest, Van Thiel, Bouckaert, & Lægreid, 2012) and degrees of integration of its parts (March, 1999). Organized turbulence entails (i) the development of administrative capacities that make the Commission able to act relatively independent from pre-existing administrative orders at a national level and (ii) that these administrative capacities are able to integrate non-majoritarian institutions at some length. Together these features would suggest a profound transformation of the inherent European administrative legacy of national administrative sovereignty. Formulating and implementing public policy in Europe has indeed been a prerogative for national administrations under the assumption that administrative sovereignty is essential to safeguard state sovereignty (Genschel & Jachtenfuchs, 2014). The sovereignty of the state has been supplied by “the [administrative] capacity of the state to effectively achieve the chosen policy outcomes” (Matthews, 2012, p. 281). How these prerogatives have become complemented with the rise of administrative capacities within the EU institutions is explored. These capacities are found primarily within the Commission; however, they are supported by an increased parallel administration consisting of both EU-level and national-level agencies. Capacity building may strengthen the Commission’s capacity for independent policy formulation, managing decentralized policy implementation, and ability to draw common lessons from experience. This may also strengthen the Commission’s capacity to integrate domestic non-majoritarian institutions as part of the center. It is essential to note that a relatively independent Commission does not equal a full centralization of executive powers from member-states to the EU level. An independent Commission would cause turbulence because it adds complexity to Europe’s administrative system.

While implicit recognition of turbulence within organizations has a long historical path, the idea of organized turbulence has rarely been explicitly theorized (see Ansell, Trondal, & Ogard, 2016). Organized turbulence produces ambiguity about what problems, solutions, and consequences to attend to at any time, and what actors are deemed legitimate and efficient. Organizations and organized systems tend to live with turbulence of various kinds—of which some are subject to design (i.e., by establishing organizational compromises of various kinds)—while others are subject to organizational evolution. Notably, political organizations are of a different kind than private organizations in this regard. Political organizations are “created in order to handle conflicts” (Jacobsson, Pierre, & Sundstrom, 2015, p. 35) and are thereby turbulent by design. For example, organized democracies have an embedded partisan responsiveness to a host of different cleavages of conflict (Rokkan, 1999), which private organizations clearly have not. Arguably, public sector organizations harbor more profound endogenous turbulence than private sector organizations. Cyert and March (1963) suggested three mechanisms for how the firm may resolve conflicts: through local rationalities, through acceptable-level decision rules, and through sequential attention to goals. Political organizations do not always solve problems but cope with them through internal organizational (re)design. This is materialized in the internal organizational fabric of central administrations through the vertical and horizontal specialization of ministerial departments, through procedures for the recruitment of staff, through the geographical location of offices, through time rules for budgeting, and so on. Organized turbulence has certain consequences for what can be termed turbulence of scale. Turbulence inside the EU administration has consequences for turbulence inside member-state administrations. This is termed turbulence of scale where turbulence at one level (e.g., at the EU level) has consequences for governance inside organizations at another level (e.g., within member-state government institutions). The attempts of one actor to manage or limit turbulence (i.e., within the European Commission [Commission]) may for example have turbulence-increasing consequences for others (i.e., member-state governments).

Why care about administrative institutions and their capacities? Administrative capacities generate the power “to actually do things” (Fukuyama, 2014, p. 52). Essential is the extent to which organizational capacities are established independently from key components of an inherent administrative order (Madison, 1788). This requirement squares with Rothstein’s call for impartial government in the exercise of public power (Rothstein & Teorell, 2008, p. 17). Essential in this context is not any kind of impartiality, but the EU administration’s impartiality or independence vis-à-vis member-state governments. What matters is the extent to which the EU administrative system in practice is relatively independent from key components of an intergovernmental administrative order. A second requirement is how internally integrated this EU administration is.

Based on a rich body of primary data, two empirical observations are highlighted. First, the supply of organizational capacities inside the Commission has become steadily strengthened over a 60-year period. These observations contend the myth of a weakened Commission by showing that the Commission does not “lack powerful, independent sources of authority … ” (Peterson & Shackleton, 2012, p. 16). At present, most organizational capacities are concentrated within policy directors general (DGs), however, increasingly supplemented with a more powerful Precedency and Secretariat General (SG). Essentially, this supply of organizational capacities inside the Commission administration has enabled Commission officials to act fairly independently of domestic government institutions. Secondly, the supply of organizational capacities inside the Commission is positively associated with the integration of agencies at the EU and national level across levels of governance. In sum, this has created a turbulent multilevel EU administration.

The turbulent nature of the EU administration is described and an organizational theory approach to explain European integration of public administration and its wider implications is outlined. Capacity building within the Commission and how Commission officials make use of these capacities during everyday work are examined. An analysis is presented of the extent to which and how non-majoritarian institutions (both EU and national agencies) relate to the Commission and in practice tend to supply the Commission with extended administrative capacities.

Theorizing Public Administration in the EU

How can the public administration of the EU be theorized? The concept of turbulence may be one valuable toolkit. Two proxies of organized turbulence in the context of the EU administration are suggested: first, the level and organization of administrative capacities of the EU administration, and secondly the degree to which these capacities become integrated as such (see Trondal & Peters, 2013).

Building on prior work in organization theory and political science, it is argued that turbulence occurs where the interaction of events and demands is experienced as highly variable, inconsistent, unexpected, or unpredictable. Turbulence is not merely an environmental property but also a key attribute of organizations and organized systems. In organization theory, the traditional image is one of organizations adapting to turbulent environments. But the reverse is possible as well: turbulence within organizations or institutions may project that turbulence onto the broader environment in which they operate. Organizational and environmental turbulence may also interact, deepening overall turbulence (Ansell, Trondal, & Ogard, 2016). There has been an unawareness of how turbulence may be an endogenous property of organizations. Government ministries, for example, are subject to complex external demands and bound by public obligations; they must be responsive to rapidly shifting changes in public opinion, electoral outcomes, and accountability practices and standards; and they are dependent upon legislatures for budgets and authority. In short, turbulence is embedded into their very organizational fabric. Thus, organized turbulence involves enduring tensions within organizations, which produce ambiguity about what problems, solutions, and consequences to attend to at any time, and what actors are deemed legitimate and efficient.

Following a recent stock-taking study of the European administrative system (Trondal & Peters, 2013), the administrative order in Europe is indeed coined by certain turbulent organizational configurations. It has been suggested that the turbulent nature of the European administrative system may be captured by at least two proxies: institutional independence and integration. The first proxy is essential to capture administrative order transformation that transcends the Westphalian administrative order based on administrative sovereignty among national administrations. The second proxy is important to gauge how well integrated or coordinated administrations are, and how it relates to surrounding administrations—notably how the EU administration relates to national administrations.

Independent Administrative Capacity

First, organized turbulence is captured by the rise of an independent administrative capacity (Fukuyama, 2014, p. 61). Administrative independence requires the possession of one’s “own” administration, thereby not solely relying on the administrative capacities of others—such as member-state governments (Zurn, 2012, p. 731). In a European context, this necessitates the rise of separate administrative capacities at the “European” level that are able to act relatively independent from member-state government institutions. Administrative independence involves the existence of separate administrative capacities, recruitment based on merit—and not nationality—and essentially that this administrative capacity is able to have a separate will (to set its own agenda) and to have a separate ability (to implement). In addition to in-house capacities, the Commission is supplied with auxiliary capacities composed of expert committees (ECs) and EU agencies. Independent administrative capacities will subsequently enable the independent development and implementation of public policy.

We also assume a positive relationship between administrative independence and turbulence: The more independent the EU administration becomes, the more turbulent the overall EU administration would be by increasing administrative complexity. By contrast, a “dependent” EU administration would imply a less turbulent administrative system merely relying on administrations of the member-states and their overall sovereign capacities.

Integration of Administrative Capacities

Secondly, organized turbulence is captured by the integration of administrative capacities across government institutions and levels of government. This entails the integration of majoritarian (here: the Commission) and non-majoritarian institutions (here: agencies) into one common administrative resource. The Commission is a majoritarian institution by being de facto a political institution (Dinan, 2016). Administrative integration may affect how majoritarian institutions in practice influence the implementation of public policy by non-majoritarian institutions. Examples would be the integration of administrative capacities of the Commission and EU agencies or the integration of administrative capacities of the Commission and domestic agencies. Administrative capacity building in the Commission might also expand its capacity to integrate horizontal administrative networks (e.g., Heidbreder, 2015).

We also assume a positive relationship between administrative integration and turbulence: The more integrated the administrative components become, the more turbulent the overall administrative system would be by increasingly challenging the administrative sovereignty of member-state administrations. By contrast, low integration of administrative resources would imply a less turbulent administrative system by merely relying on administrations of the member-states and their sovereign capacities.

Organizational theory can be used to explain variation in both administrative independence and integration. Formal organizations temporarily settle issues about “tasks, authority, power, and accountability” (Olsen, 2010, p. 37). Formal rules systematically bias the decision-making behavior of civil servants, eventually biasing the formulation and execution of public policy (Barnett & Finnemore, 2004, p. 3). An organizational approach claims that both continuity and change of organizations and the behavior of organizational members are biased by organizational structures (Ansell & Weber, 1999).

Explaining Organizational Change

An organizational approach argues that European integration of public administration is systematically shaped by pre-existing organizational structures. An organizational perspective ascribes an autonomous role for pre-existing organizational structures (or orders) to explain the emergence of new organizational arrangements, and how they are governed during every-day decision-making (Egeberg, 2003). Organisational change is framed by the heritage of structures (Radin, 2012, p. 17). Organizations create elements of robustness, and concepts such as “historical inefficiency” and “path dependence” suggest that the match between environments and new organizational structures is not automatic and precise (Olsen, 2010). New governing arrangements—such as the EU administrative system—are expected to be extorted from and mediated by pre-established organizational frameworks (Olsen, 2010; Skowronek, 1982). The compound terrain of pre-existing political institutions may serve as an important supply of resilience and opportunity in the genesis of institutions (Pierson, 2004, p. 47). This terrain serves as the supply of capacities from which a European public administration is framed and formed. An organizational approach may for example explain how several institutions may develop administrative capacities simultaneously. The growth of EU agencies seems not to have halted Commission expansion. This parallel rise of administrative capacities may be explained by a parallel “task expansion” supplied by pre-existing organizational capacities within the Commission and EU agencies. In short, the rise of an EU administrative system does not start from “a blank slate” but is systematically supplied and biased by pre-existing organizational capacities (Bauer & Trondal, 2015; Pierson, 2004, p. 151).

Explaining Behavior

An organizational approach suggests that the supply of organizational capacities has certain implications for how organizations and humans act. An organizational approach assumes that organizational capacity-building supplies government institutions with leverage to act independently and to integrate external institutions into their orbit. Organizational structures mobilize biases in public policy because formal organizations supply cognitive and normative shortcuts and categories that simplify and guide decision-makers’ behavior (Schattschneider, 1975; Simon, 1957). Organizations supply cognitive maps that simplify and categorize complex information, offer procedures for reducing transaction costs, and give regulative norms that add cues for appropriate behavior as well as physical boundaries and temporal rhythms that guide decision-makers’ perceptions of relevance with respect to public policy (March & Olsen, 1998). By carving organizations into vertical hierarchies of rank and command, the decision-making behavior evoked by civil servants is assumed to be guided by political-administrative hierarchies through discipline and control (Laegreid & Olsen, 1978, p. 31). Decision-making processes within government systems are the result of hierarchical imposition and horizontal departmentalization of organizational roles where mutually exclusive groups of participants, problems, alternatives, and solutions reside. The decision-making behavior of “Eurocrats” in an EU administrative system is likely to reflect their primary organizational embedment into roles and rules. Two empirical predictions follow:

First, on administrative independence: The supply of independent administrative capacities is necessary for government institutions to act and to affect how other institutions act. Because officials spend most of their time and energy in organizational sub-units (Whyte, 1956, p. 47), they may be expected to primarily attend to their sub-unit and less toward organizations as wholes (Ashford & Johnson, 2001, p. 36). Subsequently, Commission bureaucrats are likely to attend primarily to their Commission directors general (DGs) rather than to the concerns of member-state governments. They are expected to evoke an “inward-looking” behavioral pattern geared toward their “own” sub-units and task environments. Commission officials are expected to evoke the classical Weberian civil-servant virtues of being party-politically neutral, attaching identity toward their unit, division, and portfolio, and abiding by administrative rules and proper procedures (Richards & Smith, 2004).

Secondly, on administrative integration: Organizational capacity installed within majoritarian institutions may supply them with a capacity to integrate non-majoritarian institutions (such as agencies subordinated to ministerial departments). Organizational capacity within majoritarian institutions may for example contribute to mutual adjustment and reduction of decisional errors within non-majoritarian institutions (Landau, 1969, p. 351). By contrast, a lack of organizational capacity may reduce its capacity to integrate and guide subordinated non-majoritarian institutions. One implication of lacking administrative capacities may be increased independence for non-majoritarian institutions and thereby a vertical disintegration of the administrative apparatus on a broader scale (Fukuyama, 2014). Concomitantly, the supply of administrative capacities inside the Commission is expected to increase the likelihood that signals sent from the Commission will be ascribed importance by officials in EU agencies and domestic agencies. Administrative integration is thus expected to be supplied by the independent administrative capacities of the Commission.

More specifically, administrative integration across levels of government may be expected to assume sectoral characteristics. This assumption derives from the premise that the behavior, role, and identity perceptions evoked by government officials are expected to be primarily directed toward those administrative units that are the primary suppliers of relevant decision premises. It is thus likely that administrative integration is supplemented by the organizational capacities of government sub-units at both levels of government. One empirical implication is administrative integration along sectoral lines, for example between Commission DGs and agency sub-units.

Data and Methods

The empirical observations benefit from three separate data sources: one interview study of Commission officials, one study on the role of EU agencies, and finally one survey among domestic agency officials. The two latter represent two different types of agencies: executive agencies at the EU level and national implementing agencies.

First, assessing Commission autonomy is done by the use of semi-structured interview data among permanent Commission administrators (ADs) (N = 24) and contracted Commission officials (N = 50). The interviews were carried out during 2006 and 2007 in Brussels. The questions posed in the interviews were directed at measuring the perceptions of civil servants with respect to their decision-making behavior, and role and identity perceptions. One caveat is warranted: This data set covers two Commission directors general (DGs) (DG Trade and the Secretariat General) and a fairly small sample of officials compared to the universe of ADs. Concomitantly, the selected cases merely serve as illustrative devices. (The original data are presented in Trondal, 2010.)

Secondly, administrative integration between the Commission and EU agencies is documented on the basis of Commission and EU-agency documents. One primary source is the Annual Activity Reports (AARs) of Commission DGs. These AARs were systematically searched through electronically in order to detect and extract text concerning EU agencies. The aim was to map to what extent and how such agencies are mentioned and agency activities reported on by each DG. The AARs for both 2005 and 2012 were accessed through the Commission’s official website. The data sources also consist of other Commission documents such as “analytical fiches.” The “analytical fiches” are used in this study to tap the EU’s policy on EU agencies. Authored by the Commission, these papers may come to over-emphasize the role of the Commission. However, the Commission has been assigned the task of preparing the policy documents in this area, leading up to an inter-institutional agreement or understanding. (The original data are presented in Egeberg, Trondal, & Vestlund, 2015.)

Thirdly, to assess administrative integration between the Commission and national agencies, survey data were collected among officials in national agencies in the Norwegian central administration. The survey was conducted as an online survey by the Norwegian Social Science Data Service encompassing officials from all Norwegian subordinated agencies (51 in total). The survey was distributed to a random selection of every third official at the “A-level” with at least one year in office. The total number of responses at the agency level is 1,452, giving a response rate of 59%. Norway is not a member of the EU and, accordingly, Norwegian politicians and officials are not taking part in the formal decision-making processes within EU institutions. However, due to the European Economic Area (EEA) and Schengen agreements, Norway is obliged to implement most of the EU’s hard law as regards the internal market and border control. If one focuses on the practicing of EU legislation (and not on policy formulation), Norway can be considered in most respects to be comparable to EU member states (Egeberg & Trondal, 1999). Arguably, given its “quasi-membership,” Norway might even be seen as a critical case in the sense that if administrative integration is observed in this case, we may have reason to believe that an integration of domestic agencies in the EU administrative system will be observed in the EU member-states as well, other things being equal. (The original data set is presented in Egeberg & Trondal, 2009.)

The EU Administrative System

The supply of administrative capacities at the disposal of the Commission contributes to Commission independence. Subordinate agencies (both EU and national) are integrated into the orbit of the Commission and in practice tend to supply the Commission with additional administrative capacities. Analysis shows the strong interaction and perceived dependency of national implementers of the Commission. It underpins that the number of players, overlapping responsibilities, and cross-level processes is massive, thus indicating turbulence.

Step I: Independent Administrative Capacities

The administrative capacities of the Commission have steadily increased during a 60 year-period. There is no evidence of a reduction in this capacity building inside the Commission at any point in time. Beyond quantitative growth of the apparatus, however, the overall organizational architecture of the Commission administration has remained largely untouched during the same time period. In short, the supply of administrative capacities has increased substantially while the organizational structures inside the Commission have been characterized by overall continuity. Moreover, the economic crisis has not halted Commission capacities (Bauer & Becker, 2014). Instead, the crisis has increased the administrative capacities in the Commission to draft and conduct country-specific recommendations as part of the annual growth estimates. Still, the crisis has not fundamentally changed how the Commission is organized.

Despite public criticism toward the “Brussels bureaucracy”—first triggered by the resignation of the Santer Commission in 1999—the Commission administration has continued to expand largely by stealth, and probably despite public resistance. The Commission was established in 1957 under the leadership of President Hallstein, succeeding the High Authority under the presidency of Jean Monnet (1952–1957). It was Hallstein’s idea to organize the Commission into “vertical columns” (Dumoulin, 2007, p. 221; Loth & Bitsch, 2007). Following Hallstein’s ideas, from 1957 the Commission was horizontally organized with a total of nine DGs. Émile Noël, the long-term secretary-general of the Commission, recalls that President Hallstein had clear ideas about the organization of the Commission: he wanted a “great administration,” both strong and hierarchical (Duchêne, 1994; Dumoulin, 2007, p. 221). Today’s Commission administration totals around 40 director generals (DGs) on average. The Commission personnel increased from 280 officials in 1953 (the High Authority) to 680 in 1957. When the Hallstein Commission was established in 1957, the original estimate was that the Commission needed some 1,000 to 2,000 officials. By December 1958 there were 1,051 officials (Bitsch, 2007, p. 58; Dumoulin, 2007, p. 219). The staffing of the first Commission was officially completed by 1961. The number of officials reached 2,892 in 1967—at the time of the merger of the three Commissions—and by 1972 the Commission had a total of 5,778 officials (Dumoulin, 2007, p. 220). Yet, staff members grew more slowly in the Commission than in the other EU institutions (Mangenot & Seidel, 2014, p. 64).

Whereas by 1953 the Commission was dominated by short-term seconded officials from the member-states, today the Commission is mostly staffed by permanent officials with long-term careers. For example, in 2000, 19 out of 22 directors general had tenure within the Commission of more than 10 years (Georgakakis & de Lassalle, 2007, p. 12). Since the last enlargement, more than 4,000 new civil servants from the new member-states have joined the Commission (Kurpas, Grøn, & Kacsynski, 2008, p. 46). Despite Jean Monnet’s early vision of creating a small Commission mostly hired on secondment contracts and intentionally not exceeding 200 officials, the present Commission houses around 35,000 officials. Of this workforce only administrators (ADs) who take part in the policy-making processes (totaling approximately 12,000) are studied here. Divided by the number of DGs in the Commission, there are on average approximately 300 ADs per DG (Statistical Bulletin of Commission Staff, 2012).

The largest increase in staff has happened post-1990, partly due to increased workload caused by the “communitarization” of ever more policy areas, and partly due to the enlargements in 1994 and 2004. The large Commission staff also reflects continuous legislative activity of the Prodi and Barroso Commissions from 2000 to 2014, including strengthened emphasis on policy implementation. The Commission in general seems not to do “less.” However, the Commission seems to put greater “focus on the implementation of what is already in place” (Kurpas et al., 2008, p. 20). Thus, the need for implementation capacities at the Community level and at the national level has become ever more crucial.

The Commission administration has recently experienced capacity building by stealth around the president and the secretary general (SG). The ambition has been to make the SG into the administrative command center for the president (Barroso, 2009, 2011; Kassim et al., 2013; Kassim, 2006). This trend has particularly been witnessed throughout the Barroso presidency, but also the new Juncker Commission has suggested staff increases of the SG to support the new team of vice presidents. Yet, most Commission officials in practice tend to orient their behavior, role perceptions, and identities toward the DGs, directorates, and units. Center ambitions of the presidency thus seem partly dashed throughout policy DGs largely due to the portfolio specialization of the DGs (Hartlapp, Metz, & Rauh, 2014; Trondal, 2012). The most prevalent behavioral logic among Commission officials is a portfolio logic, which is largely indifferent to presidential commands and an administrative logic of hierarchy.

The supply of administrative capacity inside the Commission has indeed certain behavioral implications among staff members. In short, administrative structures seem to safeguard Commission independence. Reflecting the independent administrative capacities supplied by the Commission administration, officials of different ranks in the Commission hierarchy, as well as officials across different DGs, tend to act fairly independently of member-state influence both as regards decision-making behavior, role perceptions, and identities. Recent studies suggest that Commission staff obtain most of their decision-relevant information from within the Commission (Ellinas & Suleiman, 2012) and that the essential parts of policy proposals is supplied by the lead DGs (Hartlapp et al., 2014). Illustrative of this, Hustedt and Seyfried (2015) show that DGs differ in how they perceive problems and problem saliency, and also that the importance of the SG is perceived differently across DGs.

The administrative capacities supplied in the Commission even profoundly affect temporary Commission officials (SNEs). SNEs are hired by the Commission for a maximum of six years and have an ambiguous organizational affiliation to the Commission during the contract period; thus, the emergence of portfolio roles and identity perceptions among SNEs would serve as a valuable illustration (Trondal, 2004; Murdoch & Trondal, 2013). SNEs tend to be attached to the Commission organization quite quickly upon arrival in Brussels, viewing themselves as “ordinary” Commission officials. A study of current and former SNEs demonstrates that these officials direct their primary allegiances toward Commission DGs and sub-units and only secondary allegiances toward their parent ministries and agencies back home (Trondal, van den Berg, & Suvarierol, 2008). Quite similar to permanent ADs, portfolio loyalties are strong among SNEs. In sum, the “silo thinking” is supplied throughout the Commission services by the horizontal specialization of the Commission structure.

Step II: The Integration of Administrative Capacities

This sub-section shows that the Commission in practice is supplied with auxiliary administrative capacities. Emphasis here is on the role of EU agencies and domestic agencies.1

EU Agencies

The establishment of agencies at the EU level, so-called EU agencies, has mainly taken place since the mid-1990s. The establishment of EU agencies may be regarded as a compromise between functional needs for more regulatory capacity at the European level, on one hand, and the member states’ reluctance to transfer more power to the European Commission, on the other (Kelemen, 2002). The accumulated administrative capacities of EU agencies may be assessed by considering their number and size. At least three waves of agency formation at the EU level can be distinguished—the initial one in 1975, a second one from 1990 to 1999, and the third from 2000 to the present (Trondal & Jeppesen, 2008). Several of the currently existing agencies are granted some amount of formal decision-making power, while the remaining agencies have tasks such as information gathering, technical support, and administration (Groenleer, 2009). Most EU agencies have restricted de jure powers, particularly with regard to making decisions. The European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) is one example where great expectations were partly dashed. When planned and established, EASA was expected to acquire major rule-making powers. The result, however, suggests that EASA has received much less de jure powers in this regard (Schout, 2012).

Despite a significant increase in the supply of independent administrative capacities in the Commission, the same time period has witnessed a quantitative increase in the total number of EU agencies, EU agency staff, and budgets. Since 2008 the pace has accelerated even further, especially in 2010 and 2011 with the advent of the new European Supervisory Authorities in the financial services area. These new agencies have added not only in terms of quantity but also in terms of their nature and their powers, some of which are quite novel and far-reaching. Together these agencies spend over 1 billion Euros per year, and employ more than 5,000 staff. Parallel to the continuous growth of administrative capacity in the Commission, there is thus far also evidence of continuous growth of administrative capacities in EU agencies (Busuioc, Groenleer, & Trondal, 2012; Rittberger & Wonka, 2011).

The Commission sees EU agencies as “partners” of the Commission and its DGs and as integral parts of the Commission. One early testimony of this integral policy frame was the “White Paper on Governance” issued in 2001 that called for the Commission to control and monitor EU agencies (European Commission, 2001). As one illustration, the White Paper emphasized that agency staff should fall under the same staff regulations as ordinary Commission ADs. Agency autonomy was sacrificed for the Union’s need for integrated and uniform administration. The “Analytical Fiches” reveal the Commission’s policy of close integration of the Commission DGs and “their” agencies. The semantic twins applied by the Commission are “partner” and “parent” agencies, where “partner” suggests a more equal role between the agencies and the Commission while “parent” indicates a more superior role of the Commission vis-à-vis EU agencies. The Commission even argues that the “parent” role of the Commission has become greater than envisaged (Analytical Fiche Nr. 31, p. 4). In short, the Commission promotes tight relationships between Commission DGs and “their” EU agencies. The Commission frames EU agencies as integral to Commission activities, not as free-floating bodies.

A recent study (Egeberg, Trondal, & Vestlund, 2015) also shows how the Commission itself has tidily allocated the so-called regulatory (or decentralized) EU agencies among certain DGs. By content-analyzing DG Annual Activity Reports (2012), this study found that in 91% of the cases, the DGs mention “supervision” and “monitoring” of “their” agencies as part of their activities during the year. In 72% of the cases, the DGs speak of themselves as “parent DG” or “responsible DG.” Together, these observations indicate that there exists, or should exist in the eyes of the Commission, a kind of hierarchical relationship between the DG and the agency. The term “partner DG,” on the other hand, which signals a more horizontal relationship, appears in only a minority of cases. Moreover, only in relation to four agencies is the DG considered solely a “partner DG.” Interestingly, and most commonly, the term “partner DG” operates in tandem with “parent DG.” This linguistic ambiguity probably reflects some power ambiguity as regards the governance structures surrounding EU agencies.

In sum, the supply of administrative capacities inside the Commission is positively associated with the integration of Commission DGs and EU agencies, and thus the accumulation of overall organized turbulence inside the EU administrative system.

Domestic Agencies

The European Commission does not “own” or possess administrative infrastructure (agencies) at lower levels of authority. However, studies show that national implementing authorities, such as agencies, work so closely together with the previously mentioned EU bodies that national agencies in practice function as direct implementing authorities for EU legislation. In practice, this role challenges national administrative sovereignty quite fundamentally (Egeberg & Trondal, 2015b). National agencies seem to supply the Commission with relevant administrative capacities, particularly in their application of EU hard law (Egeberg & Trondal, 2009) but also at the policy-development stage (Bach, Ruffing, & Yesilkagit, 2015). Domestic agencies tend to be integrated by the Commission, particularly if the Commission supplies relevant organizational capacities. Even the daily practicing of EU legislation at the national level is no longer solely in the hands of national governments although the role of ministerial departments is pivotal. Egeberg and Trondal (2009) show that the Commission takes an active part in the practicing of EU legislation at the national level. Table 1 demonstrates the extent to which legislation that originates from EU decisions (“hard law”) is practiced by domestic agency officials.

Table 1. Percent of agency officials who report that national agencies practice laws and rules that originate from EU decisions within their own issue area



Do not know





100 (974)

(*) The table includes those officials who report being affected by the EU “to a fairly little extent” or more.

Table 1 suggests that a vast majority of domestic agency personnel who find themselves affected by the EU confirm that EU legislation is practiced within their issue area. In the following, only this group of agency officials (594) is included in the analysis. Egeberg and Trondal (2009) also show similar findings among ministry personnel: 46% of ministry officials report that EU legislation is implemented at the agency level within their particular issue area. Table 2 reveals the extent to which different institutions and actors are deemed important with respect to influencing how EU “hard law” is being practiced by domestic agencies.

Table 2. Percent of agency officials reporting that the following institutions and actors are important with respect to influencing national agencies’ practicing of EU “hard law.”A, B



National agency


European Commission (EC)


EFTA Surveillance Authority (ESA)


EC and ESA combined


“Sister agencies” in other countries


EU-level agencies


Mean N


(A) This table includes those officials who report that national agencies practice laws and rules that originate from EU decisions (“hard law”) within their own issue area.

(B) This table combines value 1 and 2 on the following six-point scale: very important (value 1), fairly important (value 2), both/and (value 3), fairly unimportant (value 4), very unimportant (value 5), do not know (value 6).

(*) ESA has the role of monitoring implementation of EU “hard law” in the EEA member states Norway, Iceland, and Lichtenstein.

Domestic agencies organized at arm’s length from ministerial departments enjoy a certain level of autonomy as regards their exercise of discretion: almost two-thirds consider the executive agency itself to be important in this respect. The role of “sister agencies” in other countries reflects the role of horizontal administrative networks. Also, respondents agree that the “parent ministry” is the most influential external body. The importance of the ministry is to some extent dependent upon its supply of organizational capacity. “Parent ministries” that contain units that are “duplicating” units found in the agencies are deemed more powerful by agency officials than ministries without such units (Pearson’s r = .21**). Secondly, national agency officials report that the second most important external institutions at the stage of practicing EU legislation are the Commission and the EFTA Surveillance Authority (ESA). While the Commission is responsible for monitoring implementation of EU policies at the national level and, if necessary, activating sanction mechanisms within the EU, ESA has similar responsibility as regards the EEA countries. ESA strives to copy Commission procedures and ways of behavior in these respects but does not take part in the policy process at various stages in the way the Commission does (Martens, 2010). Together the two “sister executives” may supply considerable administrative capacity of relevance for domestic agencies. Finally, national agency officials who report that the Commission is important as regards their implementation practices also tend to have direct contacts with the Commission (Pearson’s r = .20**). In the same vein, those who consider EU agencies as important tend to interact directly with these bodies (Pearson’s r = .37**).

The results indicate that the Commission, and to some extent EU agencies as well, actively takes part in the practicing of EU legislation at the national level. Thus, the supply of administrative capacities inside the Commission is positively associated with the integration of public administration across levels of government, and thus the accumulation of organized turbulence in the EU administrative system.


The inherent state prerogative to formulate and implement public policy is subject to an emergent and turbulent EU administration characterized by increasing turbulence due to the complex set of administrative players, cross-level interactions, overlapping responsibilities, and intertwined processes. The supply of administrative capacities of the Commission is positively associated with the integration of non-majoritarian institutions, and thus turbulence of scale. Administrative independence and integration arguably are conducive to organized turbulence of the EU administration on a broader scale.

The supply of administrative capacities inside the Commission has become steadily extended over a 60-year period. At present, most administrative capacities in the Commission are concentrated within policy directors general, however, increasingly supplemented with a more powerful secretariat general. This supply of administrative capacities inside the Commission also enables Commission officials to act fairly independently of domestic government institutions. Moreover, these capacities also supply the Commission with a capacity to integrate non-majoritarian institutions by stealth. Compared to the gradual increase of capacities in the Commission, the supply of organizational capacities in non-majoritarian institutions outside the Commission has happened more recently. These consist primarily of EU agencies and domestic agencies. Capacity building through the creation of genuinely European public administration has strengthened the Commission’s ability to set independent policy agendas, shape the implementation of these, and strengthen its capability to draw common lessons from experience. This has also supplied the Commission with a capacity to integrate domestic government institutions—and their staffs—and thus integrate a European public administration on a broader scale (see Bauer & Trondal, 2015; Egeberg & Trondal, 2015a; Overeem & Sager, 2015; Trondal & Peters, 2013). Both factors have potentially put domestic administrative sovereignty under pressure and produced turbulence of scale in the EU’s multilevel administrative system.

Moreover, the recent European economic and governance crisis has not distorted the fundamentals of this system, but rather reinforced core elements of it through incremental organizational layering. This has resulted in what Wong (2015) calls “creeping supranationalism,” which is institutionally embedded into the EU administrative fabric. Illustrative of this, even the new Eurozone governance architecture largely builds on pre-existing organizational solutions, largely strengthening the role of existing institutions such as the Commission in controlling and socializing member-states economic policy (Bauer & Becker, 2014; Zeitlin & Vanhercke, 2014), the increased role of the European Central Bank in financial supervision (Caparaso, Kim, Durrett, & Wesley, 2014; Hodson, 2014), and so on.


The author would like to thank Carolyn Ban, Philipp Genschel, Markus Jachtenfuchs, Eva Heidbreder, Adrienne Hèritier, Nicolas Jabko, Anand Menon, Berthold Rittberger, Fritz Scharpf, Susanne Schmidt, Arndt Wonka and anonymous reviewers for comments to a previous version of this chapter. Previous versions of this chapter were presented at the workshops “Beyond the Regulatory Polity? The European Integration of Core State Powers,” Hertie School of Governance, Berlin, June 2011 and Delmenhorst, March 2012.


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(1.) Additional observations along similar lines have been made on integration of Commission services and the European Parliament administration (Egeberg, Gornitzka, Trondal, & Johannessen, 2013) and the European External Action Service (Henökl, 2015).