We Europeans

A tribute to Belgian pragmatism and opportunism, Brussels has become the host city for the most important of the European Union’s institutions. Operating physically in the Quartier européen, and metaphorically in what observers call the ‘Eurobubble’, the European Commission and the European Parliament have attracted an impressive community of lobbyists.

In the words of the Interest Groups & Advocacy journal, “although most developed political systems have substantial interactions with stakeholders for a variety of purposes, the EU is remarkable in a high of dependence upon organised interests to achieve its goals.” This commitment extends to the bankrolling of NGO lobbies which, without institutional funding, would have difficulty in functioning. The European Parliament, on the other hand, limits access to a maximum of 4,000 organisations.

Lobbies? Well, the word comes from the House of Commons in Westminster,

where in earlier times petitioners would gather in the lobby or main concourse of the so-called ‘Mother of Parliaments’ to petition their elected representatives. Today Westminster has been eclipsed by Washington as the prime and happy hunting ground of lobbyists, but Brussels is catching up fast.

The Brussels community now comprises various species of lobbyists, notably in-company specialists working for corporations like BP, E.ON, Rolls Royce and Thales, but also industry, trade and professional associations (including labour unions), non-governmental organisations and regional representations. Another important species is independent consultants who count in their ranks not only communications experts but also, increasingly, specialised law firms.

How many human heads are involved full-time in this, to many outsiders, questionable practice of lobbying? Well, observers talk in terms of 15,000 to 30,000 people, but this figure has been bandied about for so many years that nobody remembers what it was calculated on.

“If you take into account all the backroom men and women now working full-time on EU affairs,” says Christophe Leclercq, founder of the EurActiv policy media network, “I would put the figure at closer to 100,000, if one includes EU institutions and people working in the member states. Indeed, diplomats are the first lobbyists ever! These days the industry relies on a range of specialists, notably researchers and communicators. The work of the face-to-face lobbyist is now only one of a number of end-products, at a time when the industry is adopting new strategies and techniques.”

What are these new trends? “Well, more and more initiatives now take the form of ‘information’ events and seminars,” says Leclercq, “not necessarily linked to a direct lobbying effort but developed as the long-term background to a lobbying programme. Other background activities include what I call ‘upstream’ lobbying, namely the publication of position papers and the like. These are precursors or reactions to the European Commission’s ‘white papers’ and ‘green papers’.

“I also see an increasing use, as in other spheres, of the social media, from the development of personal profiles on LinkedIn and Facebook to, even more importantly, the use of Twitter and tweets. Then there is a strategic trend towards moving the emphasis from the ‘platform’ of the EU institutions in Brussels to Member State level, where the lobbyist can appeal more directly to public opinion and, in some cases, trigger petitions.

“Finally,” adds Leclercq, “we also see the emergence of ‘front organisations’ which some players use in order to avoid ‘showing their hand’ too blatantly in public.”

How much money goes into the lobbying effort in and around the Brussels institutions? “It depends on how you define the expenditure,” says Leclercq, cautiously. But the Lobby Planet blog gives a partial answer: “Corporate lobbying in Brussels has long passed the one billion euro mark in annual turnover…”.

The European Commission’s Transparency Register (TR) goes part of the way towards revealing who is representing what, and with what resources: for legal reasons entries are voluntary, not mandatory. The Interest Groups & Advocacy journal estimates Transparency Register covers approximately three-quarters of business-related organisations and around 60% of NGOs, of which 15% could even so be incorrectly attributed. One-third of all TR entries claim to relate to national or regional activities, rather than European-level ones. In Leclercq’s opinion the Transparency Register goes further than similar initiatives in other government capitals and, relatively speaking, does a good job.

But, while waiting for someone to come up with a way of ensuring full transparency, there are a few initiatives with at least finger-pointing and even whistle-blowing potential. These include The Alliance for Lobbying Transparency and Ethics Regulation (ALTER-EU), the Corporate Europe Observatory (CEO), self-described as “a research and campaign group working to expose and challenge the privileged access and influence enjoyed by corporations…”, and the Lobby Planet blog.

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