The image of lobbyists as political fixers in grey suits
– conjured up by Hollywood films and TV series such
as "Thank You For Smoking" and "K-Street" – is in
need of revision everywhere. But the makover
in Brussels is particularly urgent.
The public affairs profession in the European Union’s “capital” is largely composed of knowledgeable industry and communications specialists more focused on good policymaking than the next cocktail party (although they remain a sociable lot). Today’s practitioners are less concerned with the age-old issue of access to politicians and fighting off narrow legislative proposals, and more with a two-way flow of information about how to shape and take advantage of emerging social and economic trends.
Businesses need to understand this new reality and position themselves to engage in a wider range of activities and discussions than has been the case in the past.
The active EU
So far, more than 800 corporate representations and trade associations, 100 public affairs consultancies, 420 NGOs and a number of think tanks have joined the register of interest groups established by the European Commission in 2008. Their presence in Brussels is largely a response to the volume of
Since its inception, the EU has adopted just over 17,000 legal acts and every year more than 400 legal instruments are reviewed by the three main institutions: the European Council, the European Commission and the European Parliament. The bulk of this legislation focuses on core business issues such as the customs union, free movement of goods, agriculture, transport, competition, industrial policy and the internal market, the environment and consumer and health protection.
There are two good reasons why businesses should continue to engage with the process. The first and most obvious is that what is being proposed may affect their operating model, and those of their competitors and customers. It would, for example, have been unimaginable for mobile telecoms operators to ignore the discussions that took place on roaming and termination rates.
The second reason is that there is a widespread expectation on the part of decision-makers that business will contribute to the legislative debate. Contrary to popular belief, the European institutions are relatively small: the Commission employs 33,000 public servants, of which only 12,000 are policymakers. By comparison, Birmingham City Council in Britain’s Midlands employs 56,040 civil servants. Notwithstanding their undoubted qualities (the selection process is rigorous and competitive), there are simply not enough Commission experts to go round and they therefore rely on industry and civil society representatives to help them understand the implications of their proposals and how they should be refined. The Commission, indeed, is obliged to conduct impact assessments and consult interested parties before putting forward any legislation.
The European Parliament is similarly understaffed. A European Parliamentarian (MEP) will employ at best two assistants, whereas a member of the United States Congress will have access to a staff of up to 80 professionals to support his or her research. MEPs therefore generally welcome feedback and ideas from businesses and their public affairs representatives.
Bad or rushed legislation is frequently attributable to a lack of industry engagement, as the most recent debate about private equity and hedge funds illustrates. A proper dialogue, many believe, might have led to a more balanced proposal but the draft has upset all parties (both pro- and anti-legislation). This means that the lobbying of the Council and Parliament in the coming months will be fierce, and to some extent, unpredictable.