December 2, 2019
Like at national level, EU lobbying is now part of the “dark arts”. For a long time, “one” has mistrusted it. Today “one” fights it. Soon, “one” will prohibit it. But who is “one”? People? The media? Politicians? Society as a whole? In this climate of great hostility, the focus is on “bad lobbyists”, creating the impression that there are “good lobbyists”. Let’s shed some light!
In 1992, I remember speaking at a public hearing in the European Parliament on the “codification” of lobbying, organised by MEP Marc Galle. Already back then, the topic was exciting; on the day of the hearing, rue Belliard (the entrance to the European Parliament at the time) was crowded with people and inside, the room was much too small. Thirty years later, where do we stand? Nowhere! It took years to create the transparency register, and ultimately to transform it into something more binding. But this register is insufficient, lacking effective controls and appropriate sanctions. Regulating lobbying activities is urgently required.
Interest Representation is an integral part of the EU decision-making process
No file goes through the EU decision-making process, without some degree of exchange, dialogue and collaboration between the Institutions and civil society. Expert groups, Advisory committees, Civil dialogue groups and Sectoral social dialogue groups are official fora where interest representatives (industry, NGOs, consumer groups, trade unions) are informed by the Commission and requested to make their positions known. You can call this “mediation”, “advocacy” or “lobbying”, depending on to the degree of openness and willingness to listen.
Along the same lines, no EU file can be adopted without bringing expertise. Undoubtedly competent, the Commission civil servant, MEP or Perm Rep attaché is not necessarily an expert. Or at least, not enough of an expert. Therefore, he or she will actively gather information, either from EU trade associations, companies, specialised NGOs or recognised experts. At EU level, clearly the first criterion to distinguish good from bad lobbyists is competence and credibility.
Does influence rely on quantity or quality?
There is a well-known cliché that “bad lobbyists” have great financial resources. Their networks of influence are countless (trade associations, lawyers, consultants, media, etc.). All these channels offer multiple contacts with the higher echelons of the Commission, Council or Parliament. How many times I have been at conferences and heard influence being measured in statistical terms: “Industry saw the Commissioner five times and my NGO not once!” This makes no sense. Power in Brussels is a “bottom-up” power where high-level contacts can often be more of a handicap than an advantage.
In all honesty one has to recognise that, on average, NGOs are, in terms of lobbying (and they are indeed lobbying structures), much better equipped than trade associations whose loss of influence is becoming abysmal. NGOs have adequate resources and highly qualified teams, they are specialised and they co-ordinate their activities in thematic areas. At managerial level, they have excellent leadership. They master the use of social networks and communication in general. And they know how to use the decision-making procedures to their advantage (e.g. right of petition, European citizens’ initiative, veto right). As for the “new techniques of influence”, NGOs are on the offensive and industry is on the defensive. NGOs are one step ahead.
To be a trend-setter or trend-follower?
The major antagonism between NGOs and industry has its origins in the issues that currently make news at EU level: GMOs, glyphosate, pesticides, climate, conventional energy, agriculture, food, health, animal well-being, etc. In short: NGOs are hitting the accelerator while industry is hitting the brakes!
The truth is that the world is undergoing profound changes. Whistleblowers are welcome because they expose truths that some would like to keep hidden, but which people intuitively believe to be at least partially true. Greta Thunberg may irritate, but it is now obvious that climate change is a serious challenge.
Two camps are in opposition: the trend-setters who demand IMMEDIATE change often based on clichés, protests and howling, and the trend-followers who ask for time to adapt their economic models and industrial processes. By pushing their advantage to the maximum, the NGOs suffocate their opponent. Instead of arguing, pleading and having a dialogue, the big risk is that those who shout loudest, exaggerate the most and caricature will gain the upper hand…
If we continue on this path, the European Union will regress towards outdated models, turning inward on itself, favouring an excessive precautionary principle that stunts new technologies. NGOs have become technically credible, whilst continuing to cherish and reinforce their activism. Industry and NGOs must get reacquainted, from the top of the EU pyramid right down to the local level. There is no other option.
Conclusion: In my first writings on EU lobbying, I used to say that “a good lobbyist is one which the Commission (or EP or Council) calls more often than he or she contacts them.” We need to reinstate this. Being a lobbyist means having a recognised credibility, or in other words, a shared credibility.
Daniel GuéguenDaniel Gueguen