Representing interests (more commonly known as ‘lobbying’) is a complex profession founded on a simple choice: either you try to convince and build consensus via mediation, or you work to impose one side’s view upon the other. The European Union, so long a beacon of mediation, is slowly drifting towards the second option. This is a real danger!
For a long time public affairs was structured around two actors: voters and the representatives they elect. The European Economic Community, as a creator of technical regulations since its creation in 1957, added a third (Commission civil servants) and then a fourth: lobbying groups. In the Anglo-saxonised world of Brussels, lobbying groups are well-established and are always consulted by the institutions.
The system, based on decision-making processes that were on the whole simple (or at least standardised) and involved a limited number of players, functioned well up until the 2000s. At the turn of the 21st century, four factors changed the rules of the game: decision-making processes were made much more complex by the Lisbon Treaty, control over files slipped from the political to the technical level, civil society emerged and the use of social networks became widespread.
Today, five actors – a kind of pentagram – share the European power
In the EU, the Commission remains the cornerstone of decision-making (since it proposes and implements), with the co-legislators (the European Parliament and the Council) adopting laws. But clearly the lower levels of the Commission are currently more important than those residing at the upper echelons. In addition to these experts, the Commission has other experts who prepare impact assessments, conduct scientific analyses and participate in working group discussions.
The orientation is determined up high, but implementation is done at the bottom. Elected politicians are the guarantors of democracy. But what about experts and bureaucrats? Of course, they are not anti-democratic, but it is not their job to be democratic. In fact, they are ‘ademocratic’! Their job is to draw up technical regulations and they do it as best they can, but with their help, the political vision of the founding fathers and their immediate successors is slipping in the direction of a technocratic Europe.
Two actors are missing from our pentagram: NGOs – also known as ‘civil society’ – and industry. But instead of treating them as separate categories, could we not make them two branches of the same category? The simple answer is ‘no’, because their interests, methods and strategies are radically different. There was a time when NGOs were effectively non-existent in Brussels: few in number, badly organised, weak resources. Today, they dominate the EU sphere.
There is no question of criticising NGOs as organised influence groups – they are a vital component of democracy. But it must be stressed that the ‘NGO bloc’ is not monolithic. Some aspire to dialogue and discussion. Others are more radical, hostile to the capitalist logic of our societies. And some of them – the ones we hear the most – are composed of activists.
Thanks to their mastery of communication and social networks, and their belief that they speak for the public interest, it is obvious that NGOs are the ones dictating the EU agenda. By contrast, industries are on the defensive, unable or unwilling to promote their interests and persuade others.
This issue is important, because if economic and industrial sectors (chemical, plant protection, agriculture…) continue losing against Greenpeace, Pesticide Action Network or Friends of the Earth, the fear is that European R&D will be outsourced to the USA or China, and our society will go backwards technologically. People are distrustful of science, industry, professors and experts…with the risk of returning to the age of sail boats and steam engines!
From objectivity to subjectivity!
Philosophically, objectivity does not exist. But we can try to get close to it; that is the role of the legislator. The desire to be ‘objective’ is now drifting towards subjectivity because the arguments are becoming clichés. Civil servants and politicians should be ‘nuanced’ in promoting the public interest, but instead we are confronted in the daily management of public affairs lobbying with caricatured positions and ‘black-and-white’ strategies that are the very antithesis of the need for mediation. There are plenty of examples of this!
The GMO issue is instructive in the way it has been buried by the EU. The case of NBTs (New Breeding Techniques) has gone down the same road, now considered equivalent to GMOs. The EU is therefore becoming like an island, where these products are taboo while everywhere else they are being developed. Worse still, massive imports of soya meal and other feed for livestock are coming into the EU, with residues of substances that are banned here. Apart from farmers, nobody seems surprised or concerned about this.
The big NGOs are past masters in modern communication. Greenpeace produces a million signatures against glyphosate while the farming world – which is primarily affected – cannot get 50,000! NGOs have local networks (as do farmers, but they do not know how to mobilise them unless a tractor protest is organised). NGOs reign supreme on Twitter, LinkedIn and Instagram, while industry is still coming up with long and complex position papers aimed at experts – but nobody else can read them!
Nobody argues anymore, nobody seeks to persuade, nor does anybody try to build consensus. Civil society (NGOs) frames the arguments, often as caricatures. To be blunt, the bigger the caricature, the more often it succeeds. Faced with this onslaught, industry lies down, goes on the defensive and waits for something to happen, not understanding that the longer you wait, the worse things get.
From subjectivity to softness!
Glyphosate is the perfect example of poor European governance and laxity. Does it cause cancer or not? The man in the street does not have a clue, and neither do I. To reach an objective decision, the European Commission uses specialised agencies. The European Chemicals Agency and the European Food Safety Authority have both concluded glyphosate is not carcinogenic.
Two things: either the Commission trusts its agencies and moves to authorise glyphosate, or it does not trust its agencies and must abolish or reform them.
In this affair, the laxity was two-fold: the Commission did not openly support its agencies and took refuge in a kind of comfortable duplicity (“we are not ‘for’ but neither are we ‘against’”). And when the file – an implementing act subject to Member State agreement – went to appeal, the Commission – despite being authorised to adopt in the absence of a qualified majority – shirked its responsibility for the final decision, to the great satisfaction of NGOs.
It was only thanks to an unexpected reversal of policy by Germany that a qualified majority was eventually found in favour of re-authorising glyphosate for 5 years. Some months later, a European Parliament angry with this decision set up a special ‘PEST committee’ whose very name suggests the orientation of its objectives.
In a brutal, competitive and unstable world, we absolutely have to push for a return to respectful governance of all stakeholders’ interests; a return to governance that builds consensus. This is no small matter. In fact, it is vital for the future of the European Union because it is a response to Euroscepticism. Everything must be done to adjust EU decision-making procedures and make all actors more accountable: the Commission, the co-legislators, NGOs and industrial lobby groups. For the latter, most of them are fighting yesterday’s battles, and they really need to adapt their influence techniques and trade associations to the new paradigm described above. To see economic sectors on the defensive is not good for them or for us, and certainly not for the society we aspire towards.
Professor at the College of Europe