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Corridors of power: Why lobbying the EU institutions is big business

10:06 28/01/2018
Lobbying is a billion-euro industry in Brussels, and here’s how it works

They number about 30,000 in Brussels, and represent interests as varied as farmers, animal rights activists, think tanks, lawyers and national governments. They are sometimes branded as shadowy fronts for big business, and at other times as naive non-governmental organisations (NGOs). They are the European Union lobbyists, and when it comes to influencing the EU machine, they are now a routine part of the process.

EU lobbying, or interest representation, is essentially a government relations activity. It is the attempt to influence EU activities through various means, from informal chats to public relations. Legislators, regulators and bureaucrats are targeted: that’s the European Commission (the EU’s executive), the European Parliament (the directly elected assembly), and the Council of Ministers (the national governments).

The Joint Transparency Register, a voluntary EU lobbying registry, says anyone aiming to influence policy is a lobbyist, from NGOs and diplomats to corporate giants and academics. In September 2017, there were 11,431 names on the registry. About half are in-house lobbyists and trade or business associations, and a quarter are NGOs. They range from familiar names like Greenpeace and Google to more obscure ones like the European Federation of Funeral Services and the European Association of Daily Newspapers in Minority and Regional Languages.

As the centre of EU decision-making, Brussels is the second-biggest lobbying capital in the world after Washington DC. There may be a variety of lobby interests, but their methods and instruments tend to converge, according to Jan Lichota, who heads the Manager Association Bureau at tourist agency Visit Brussels. “The best strategies in lobbying come from the fact of being clear in your objectives, having well-targeted interlocutors and building alliances,” he says.

Big influence

Lobbying has evolved as the EU has grown in power, and interest groups have become more creative and organised, Lichota explains. “It has changed over the years as a profession due to changes in technology, civil servant culture and training, and the openness of institutions in the preliminary process of consultation,” he says. Today, lobbyists are thought to influence around three-quarters of EU legislation, through various means from giving politicians information and arguments during the decision-making process to briefing the press and organising protests. Most lobbyists say their work is about providing the facts so that officials are well-informed when they take decisions.

“It’s about giving the views from a different aspect of society,” says Maeve Whyte, the director of a team of six at the British Agriculture Bureau, which represents UK farmers’ unions. “Our role is to be the voice of UK farming, and to make it clear to decision-makers what the impact of decisions will be on farming life.”

Whyte’s activities cover a range of policies affecting farmers, from environmental laws to subsidies, and from trade to health and safety. Recent lobbying efforts include country-of-origin labelling (“we want this to be clear on packaging, so people know they are buying British, French or Irish”), genetically modified products, and pushing for an adjudicator to help deal with issues involving big retail chains.

It often involves coordinating with other national groups to piece together a common European approach, “and then we can say this is of concern to Europe’s farmers as a whole”. But it means acting quickly during the complicated EU decision-making process, and knowing who to speak to in the chain of legislation, from Commission official to MEP.

“We want to speak before the ink is dry and it’s impossible to change,” Whyte says. “That way, they know whether it will work or not. It makes it real to people, as Brussels can seem a long way from the farm gate.”

'You need to be quick'

Who to speak to and when is a crucial issue for lobbyists. “You don’t need big machinery to be a lobbyist, you need to be quick. Lobbying is action,” according to Daniel Guéguen, a lobbyist who runs the Pact European Affairs consultancy that helps clients navigate through the EU labyrinth.

Guéguen says the balance of power between the institutions has shifted with EU treaty changes, and effective lobbyists need to know the ins and outs of the machine. Previously, lobbyists had to be both technical specialists and good networkers. Now they must understand the complexities of EU decision-making processes.

“The Lisbon Treaty was crucial,” he says. “Before that, we had almost standardised lobbying: you identify who is dealing with the issue in the Commission, you contact them, and you are a lobbyist,” he says.

He evokes the concept of ‘comitology’, the consultation procedures that must be followed for laws to be adopted, which has become more complicated than ever.

“In theory, the Lisbon Treaty gives more power to the European Parliament. In practice, it doesn’t,” he says. Nor does he put much faith in even meeting commissioners. “What is the interest in meeting a commissioner, who usually doesn’t want to get into the details? You need to speak to the Commission desk officer on the issue.”

Guéguen says the windows of opportunity to influence are reduced thanks to the secretive trilogue process, where representatives from the Commission, the Parliament and the Council of Ministers meet behind closed doors to hammer out compromises on issues. This process has cut out parliamentary second readings for legislation: every legislative proposal in 2016 was adopted at first reading.

It raises questions about democratic scrutiny, Guéguen says, as there is no debate in Parliament. The result, he says, is to produce light legislation that’s more like guidelines, leaving the more important bits to secondary legislation, like the implementing acts. “All this has consequences: it is less transparent, and harder to lobby.” That, he says, makes lobbying a cynical job. “You need to be credible, of course, but the more complex it is, the better it is for us lobbyists.”

Big budgets

The result is that the lobbying sector continues to grow. And groups are ready to spend more and more. According to the EU Transparency Register, Google spent €4.25 million on lobbying in Brussels last year and currently has 14 people directly involved in the process. Corporate Europe Observatory, a watchdog campaigning for greater transparency, says corporations and their lobby groups in EU policymaking enjoy “privileged access and influence”. In March last year, it found that only four of the 28 EU countries’ permanent representations to the bloc had rules for interactions with lobbyists, while at least six EU embassies did not keep any records of who was meeting with their staffers.

Concerns about lobbying have prompted new efforts to regulate the sector. The Joint Transparency Register, set up in 2011 by the Commission and Parliament, is voluntary. But lobbyists must be members of the registry if they want to get a permanent access pass for the Parliament. The pass allows lobbyists to walk about the Parliament without invitation, approach MEPs and their assistants in corridors or bars, and knock on their office doors. There are proposals to set up a mandatory register: lobbyists and activists would have to sign up to in order to meet MEPs and senior EU officials.

Whatever the questions about lobbying, almost everyone in decision-making, including officials, agrees that they are an essential part of the process. They represent key interests and help define how actions and proposals could affect people’s lives. They may represent a huge variety of voices, and they may use different means to influence the process, but they all contribute to the end result.

This article first appeared in ING Expat Time

Written by Leo Cendrowicz