A guide to lobbying in the EU - a view from the inside
by our secret columnist in Brussels
The public affairs industry is often portrayed as a murky sector, corrupting democracy and ensuring big business receives disproportionate influence over policy-making. But our resident satirist Schadenfreude decided it was time we gave a platform to someone actually doing the job, to find out what makes a lobbyist tick. Here is his first-hand account of life inside the normally secretive world
I am a lobbyist. In the United States, where the profession started - it is reasonably honourable, with the odd scandal. Here in mainland Europe, where I work, it is often mistrusted. There is an amusing paradox in the political vocabulary. To lobby may be considered ungentlemanly, but for a minister to talk to us "on a lobby basis" - we do not reveal where it came from. It is an established convention. It also provides the minister with an opportunity to show how important he is.
I work on European Union matters in Brussels and in Strasbourg when the European Parliament is on its away-days. Our professional problem is that the power centres are diffused as well as conflicting. We have to get at the highest common factor of reality. In most countries, my colleagues have as principal target the two branches of governance – the executive and the parliament, with the press also in the frame. In the EU's structure of checks and balances, thesis and antithesis, and inter-institutional ping-pong – lobbying, successfully influencing decisions, is practised in a more complex environment.
At least 75 per cent of our effort is futile, but we do not know which 75 per cent it is. We do not waste time working on the local national representations. They are placemen doing what they are told and are deaf to suggestions we might make to them. On the other hand, they are precious sources of information in an arena where rumour is rife. The working lunch à deux with one of the junior men in one of the famed Brussels restaurant is client money well spent.
It is a waste of time to spend it on rank and file members of the European Parliament. They do not know much and, in the words of Gilbert and Sullivan, they "vote just as their leaders tell 'em to". Political group leaders, chairmen of committees and "rapporteurs" - the members responsible for drawing up draft reports are in my sights. Self-importantly jealous of their status, they lap up my approval. This helps towards indiscretion. Time was when the governments largely disregarded them. But the quality of parliamentary work has improved and co-decision of parliament-governments is now the rule. Often enough, the rapporteur, having absorbed heaps of information and advocacy loses the plot and is open to the "technical" steer, which my clients can disinterestedly offer.
But the prime target is the European Commission; in the persons of the commissioner whose portfolio is engaged, the director general who is briefing him and down in the hierarchies - officials who are ready to talk about their work. Do not misunderstand me. I am not talking about corruption. People take pride in their achievements and can be amicably encouraged to talk expansively about them.
I would ideally like to get at the policy-making centres in member state governments, which is physically impossible. I keep up with some old Brussels hands now at their home base and talk to them by phone and online on an 'old boy' basis. They trust me not to abuse our relationship. I like to think that we are part of a complete process. We are openly biased, but we offer hard data and advice. This, like the information that comes from other sources, can be tested and used or dumped. We have even been known to save the policy-makers from error. One of my colleagues, our doyen, famously inspired a treaty protocol that put right an earlier injustice. So do not believe all you read about the public affairs industry, us lobbyists are there to help too.
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