Lobbying in Brussels: shaping law in the heart of the EU
Brussels is at the center of the EU decision-making process and as such attracts thousands of lobbyists promoting the interests of a variety of groups, from big companies to public stakeholders and NGOs. But what does lobbying mean?
Lobbying can be defined as “the activity of trying to persuade someone in authority, usually an elected member of a government, to support laws or rules that give your organization or industry an advantage”. Lobbying is normally differentiated from other advocacy work as it focuses on the legislative process. Lobbyists thus attempt to influence the drafting and implementation of new or existing laws, while advocacy focuses on drawing attention to a specific cause and achieving other, non-legislative, results (such as increasing funding, public support or civil society awareness).
While trying to influence the decision-making process, lobbyists offer expertise and competences to the legislators. In fact, legislators – politicians or officials – are very rarely experts in all policies. Thus, drafting and implementing sensible and workable legislation requires input from a broad range of perspectives. Lobbyists offer expertise by presenting arguments and counter-arguments to shape law according to the interests they represent. By providing clear and qualitative inputs into the legislative process in a competent and transparent manner, they help legislators to develop practical and appropriate laws which will ultimately impact on society.
As lobbying is addressed to legislators, the EU institutions are the center of the lobbyist activities: the European Commission, the Parliament, The Council of Europe Union, and all the entities involved in the decision-making process. But lobbying is carried out also in informal activities: conferences, networking cocktails, café are important spaces to meet new people and create professional networks. In this sense, Place Luxembourg represents an emblematic place: every Thursday evening, the pubs of the square fill up by interns, professionals, and officials working inside and outside the EU institutions. These occasions represent a good way to enjoy a drink in a relaxed environment while exchanging information and contacts.
For the importance of their activities, lobbyists work in a variety of organizations. These include private companies, European public consultancies, law firms, NGOs, think-tanks, or trade associations. Google is, without doubt, one of the most active lobbyists in the European capital. With 120 lobby meetings held since December 2014 with a commissioner, cabinet member or director-general, Google is a leading company in terms of lobby organizations with the best access to the elite of the Commission. Google lobbies the EU institutions in a number of crucial issues, such as the Commission’s digital single market strategy, cyber-security, and intellectual property. According to The Guardian, Google faces fines of up to 10% of its global turnover for each case if found guilty of breaching antitrust rules. In that context, an annual €6 million plus spend on EU lobbying represents a worthwhile investment.
Thus, to give transparency to the lobbying activities, since 2011 the Parliament and the Commission have jointly operated a public register called the Transparency register. The aim is to ensure that those seeking to interact with EU institutions get to declare their interest publicly and provide information about themselves. Even if registration is voluntary, it may be necessary for certain types of access. For example, lobbyists have to be registered to speak at a public hearing organized by a Parliament committee. Today, the transparency register has recorded more than 11,000 organizations with more than 80,000 staff, including non-governmental organizations, business associations, companies, trade unions, and consultancies.
Sometimes lobbying is associated with negative and opaque purposes, but it should be considered that lobbying is not a new activity. As long as formal legislative processes have existed, different groups have sought to influence the development of the legislation in different ways. This is an inherent part of the democratic process. Lobbyists represent professional figures who offer high competencies and deep knowledge at the service of the legislators and society.