The fact that the decision-making procedures within the European Union institutions are relatively complex and often little understood, allied to the increasing importance of the decisions taken, has provided fertile ground for the growth of lobbying. The world of Brussels-based ‘interest representation’, as the European Commission calls it, tends to divide into four main categories: i) the established social partners, representing business and labour on an EU-wide basis, which enjoy formalised links with the Commission in particular; ii) European and national trade associations, as well as ‘in-house’ lobbyists for individual companies; iii) non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and single-issue lobbies, notably in the fields of development policy, human rights, consumer protection, the environment and animal welfare, some of which are subsidised by the EU Budget; and iv) professional consultancies (and some law firms) representing a variety of private and public-sector clients. This last group will, for a fee, monitor developments in a particular policy area, suggest and cultivate contacts, arrange meetings and generally assist in the putting of a case. In recent years, many of the larger regions of the European Union, such as Catalonia, Scotland and the German Länder, as well as several individual states of the United States, have also opened representative offices in Brussels. These are in addition to the official permanent representations of member states and the embassies of third countries, which themselves are increasingly engaged in seeking to influence the EU institutions.

It is difficult to quantify the exact number of organisations or individuals engaged in lobbying in Brussels. The Commission has estimated that there are some 4,000 bodies of various kinds (other than national, regional or local governments) with which it is in regular contact. For some years, it compiled a database, known as CONECCS (Consultation, the European Community and Civil Society), which revealed the extraordinary variety of such bodies, covering matters as diverse as autism, rail­way engineering, natural gas, processed cheese and polyurethane foam blocks. The Commission itself chooses to consult pro-actively some of these bodies, especially those of a technical character, in the preparation of Green and White Papers, and legislative and other initiatives. It established minimum standards for such advance consultation in 2003, as part of its new emphasis on Better Law-Making.

As the EU institutions are relatively open by comparison with many national bureaucracies, lobbyists of all kinds have traditionally had little difficulty in gaining access to them. However, the continuing rise in the number of lobbyists and the general professionalisation of the sector have led to calls for ‘interest representation’ to be regulated, as it is in United States. In May 2008, as part of its European Transparency Initiative (ETI), the Commission introduced a voluntary register and code of conduct for lobbyists, inviting them to register whenever they had dealings with Commissioners or officials. Over the following three years, some 3,700 organisations or individuals (wherever they might be based in the EU) entered their names on the Commission’s register.

Later in 2008, the Commission opened negotiations with the European Parliament, with a view to developing a common code of conduct and register on an inter-institutional basis. The Council of Ministers refused to participate in this discussion, claiming that its secretariat was not lobbied, that the activities of governmental bodies within the EU system could not be characterised as lobbying, and that in any case ministers were covered by national rules on the subject. The Commission and Parliament reached agreement on a joint code of conduct, merging practice in both institutions, in spring 2009, and on a joint register, building on the Commission’s experience to date, in autumn 2010. The new joint register, which was opened in June 2011, will progressively take over the organisations and individuals previously registered separately with each institution (in the Parliament’s case for access badges). By September 2012, over 5,300 organisations or individuals had transferred to the new joint register.

The Parliament has pushed for the new inter-institutional arrangements to be made legally binding, but so far the Commission has resisted this, arguing that, in the absence of an explicit treaty base for such an initiative, any legislative proposal would need to be introduced under Article 352 TFEU, which requires unanimity in the Council. Any text agreeable to all 27 member states might ironically be less ambitious than the non-binding status quo, which increasingly large numbers of outside interests are willing to accept voluntarily.

In April 2011, a ‘sting’ operation by journalists from the British Sunday Times newspaper, posing as professional lobbyists, led to the resignation of two Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) for ostensibly agreeing to accept payment in return for submitting parliamentary amendments. The Parliament responded by drafting a code of conduct, modelled on national parliamentary arrangements in several member states, to regulate members’ dealings with outside interests and force systematic disclosure of relevant financial interests, backed by sanctions for non-compliance.

Further reading: David Coen and Jeremy Richardson, Lobbying the European Union: Institutions, Actors and Issues, 2009; Justin Greenwood, Representing Interests in the European Union, 1997.

September 2012

Copyright: Anthony Teasdale, 2012

Citation: The Penguin Companion to European Union (2012), additional website entry

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