Lobbying in Brussels: Informing the Political Process

Article excerpt

Lobbying has long been a dirty word, conjuring up visions of nefarious activity and usually involving payment for political favours. The title of a new book by the professor of political science at Rotterdam University does little to dispel this impression. Machiavelli in Brussels--the art of lobbying the EU has an appropriate ring of subterfuge, even if the contents are entirely above board.

The truth about lobbying is altogether more prosaic. Lobbying is the means whereby interested parties seek to influence the political process. This may involve large organisations representing powerful interests or small groups who simply have something important to say. As such, lobbying helps to inform as it seeks to influence and promotes better public policy in the process.

The absence of corruption in the body politic is the best protection against corrupt practice in lobbying. The key requirements of Government are free and equal access, transparency about who is representing what to whom and dispassionate assessment by policy-makers of competing claims.

The European 'Capitol'

The need for vigorous lobbying is nowhere more pronounced than in Brussels. In member states of the European Union, a reasonably ready connection can be made between Government and governed, with the civil service providing apolitical support. The EU institutions are, almost inevitably, more diffuse with the unelected Commission having the sole right to propose legislation, which is then disposed by a combination of the Council of Ministers, comprising national governments from all member states and the European Parliament, with its loosely composed groupings of directly elected MEPs from across the Union. The current review of governance by former French President Valery Giscard d'Estaing may remedy some aspects of the EU's 'democratic deficit' but seems unlikely to compensate for the impact of further enlargement.

Ignorance may be bliss but legislators in Brussels are commendably aware of the dangers of developing well-intentioned proposals which are insufficiently grounded in reality. As a consequence, most lobbyists would agree that Commission officials are refreshingly open to representations from parties within individual member states, sometimes offering them better access than their own national administrations. In particular, officials are keen to challenge and be challenged on the practicalities of nascent policies with a view to achieving robust results.

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Widening writ

It remains to be seen whether such ease of access can be sustained as the number of member states grows and the competence of the EU to legislate widens. Strictly speaking, only European organisations have the right of representation; those able to achieve a constructive and timely consensus (such as trade associations) are powerfully placed to make an impact, though consensus can prove as elusive in transnational industry bodies as in the EU's own political institutions. In any event, the Commission seems to welcome national perspectives as an additional check and balance.

What seems certain is that the impact of the EU on business and the need for effective lobbying will continue to grow. For many years, industries other than agriculture had little cause to take much notice of what was happening in Brussels--but the advent of the single market programme and the progressive extension of powers through the Maastricht, Amsterdam and Nice treaties have radically changed perspectives. Furthermore, the EU acts on behalf of all member states in the World Trade Organisation, occupying a crucial position in relation to most trades and services, including highly charged issues such as genetically modified organisms and intellectual property rights.

Effective lobbying

So what makes for an effective lobby? For many people, lobbying almost by definition requires meetings with politicians and conjures up visions of protesters thronging nearby streets. …