This article points at two problematic assumptions made in some of the contemporary European agency literature. It proposes a conceptual framework, integrating accountability, autonomy and control, and aims to demonstrate how this type of conceptualisation contributes to clarifying problematic aspects of the current European agency debate. Empirical evidence from interviews with high-level practitioners is provided to illustrate the relevance of the proposed framework. The empirical information reveals that, at times, the de facto level of autonomy displayed by some European agencies is below the autonomy provided by the formal legal rules as a result of ongoing controls exercised by one (or other) of the principals. The repercussions that flow from these empirical insights for the agency debate in general, as well as for our understanding of agency accountability, will be discussed at length. © 2009 Blackwell Publishing Ltd.