Governments and legislatures in Europe have created or greatly strengthened independent regulatory agencies (IRAs). Yet they also retain many formal controls over those agencies. The article analyzes whether elected politicians have used their powers to create IRAs in their own image and kept IRAs under tight control or whether they have allowed IRAs to become a distinct set of actors, hence a "third force" in regulation. Principal–agent (PA) theories, largely based on U.S. experience, emphasize the importance of certain formal controls for elected politicians to limit "agency losses." However, an analysis of four European nations between 1990 and 2001 shows that elected politicians did not use their powers to appoint party politicians, force the early departures of IRA members, reverse IRA decisions, or reduce IRA budgets and powers. Using PA theory, two interpretations of this apparent puzzle are offered, each with differing implications for agency autonomy. One is that elected politicians used alternative methods of control, hence they suffered low "agency losses" and IRAs in practice had little autonomy. The other is that elected politicians found that the benefits of IRA autonomy in practice and the costs of applying their formal control outweighed agency losses, and hence accepted agency autonomy
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