The importance of decisions taken in the offices of Brussels’s European Quarter is evident in the streets and squares of the area. Hundreds of people dressed in suits and ties continually trickle through the streets. You can easily overhear conversations in every EU language, although English and French dominate. The hustle and bustle of the working week contrasts sharply with the weekend atmosphere when the streets and offices are deserted.
“In this city, serious matters are decided every day. I like to say that we work in Europe’s kitchen. Who can disregard what goes on here? The presence of lobby groups has long been a constant, logical feature”, confesses Jos Chabert, the first Vice-President of the Parliament in Brussels. It is reckoned that 70% of lobbies work for businesses, 20% for international, regional or local institutions, and only 10% for NGOs.
Some press for women's rights, others work to promote or discourage the introduction of GM products, or to amend new pharmaceutical regulations… These pressure group use different strategies to exert their influence on centres of executive or legislative power, in order to advance their own interests. To achieve this, they must exchange information and have a thorough knowledge of the network of power relations in their field. They must also have clear objectives and draw up a strategy. They are usually most efficient in areas in which legislation is still being developed, such as computing and biotechnology.
Welcoming regional representatives
Until recently, most lobby groups represented businesses in the city. Now regional governments from all over Europe are joining in. There are already 250 regional delegations with permanent offices. Patiently they await official announcements of projects aimed at regions, to benefit from European funds.
The Finnish government is one example: “We opened a local office to promote the Helsinki region as a competitive knowledge centre and as a safe and pleasant area of Northern Europe”, explains Eija Nylund, the Office Director.
To advise newcomers, Pascal Goergen has just published Lobbying in Brussels. A practical guide to the European Union for cities, regions, networks and enterprises. The book recalls the origins of the concept of ‘lobbying’ in 19th century USA. The term is derived from the ‘lobby’, (entrance hall) where most deals were agreed. Evidence of the first pressure groups dates back to the Second World War. “Since then their popularity has increased and it has now peaked", explains Goergen.
“However, the term remains unclear and is often misunderstood. Lobbyists are seen as strategic, flexible people with a good background in politics,” explains Bertrand Deprez, a young consultant. They are also aware of the "fierce competition" that rages today.
A bad reputation
Many lobbyists don’t like to reveal what they do, above all because of the negative connotations that come with such an admission. Lobby groups, often accused of employing illegal practices, have a reputation for being a source of corruption. “The truth is that it is a very transparent world, completely free of mystery. Our bad reputation is unjustified” notes veteran Paul Adamson, founder of the think-tank and consultancy ‘The Centre’. A think-tank is a group of high-level specialists who contribute ideas and advise governments. “We are much less aggressive than lobbyists in Washington or London". He believes his work needs clarification. He explains that a lobby group has a direct duty to a company, while consultants advise various clients and have more freedom to manoeuvre. “In our case we are also a think-tank, in that we try to provoke debate and establish points of contact”.
Adamson’s experience in Brussels has enabled him to observe how the area has evolved. “The market has grown a great deal and is now paralysed. There are politicians who receive so many requests for meetings that they literally have no time”. Fortunately, of course, we have moved on from the times when huge paper files were exchanged. “Now many such documents are streamlined and attempts are made to synthesise all the aims into a couple of pages translated into several languages. This is a fundamental improvement,” says Adamson, also the founder of E! Sharp magazine.
Toyota: a case study
Geoffroy Peeters is an experienced lobbyist for Toyota’s government affairs department, responsible for car and road safety. “Our intention is to promote the interests of the company in the European institutions. We want to increase awareness of environment and safety issues. We work on maintaining good relationships with representatives, advising and conducting informal conversations…” He maintains that it is not a matter of confrontation but of collaboration. “We know the sector well. We are specialists. Therefore it is important that they take our viewpoint into consideration”.
Peeters believes the bad reputation lobbyists have is unjustified. “In a Europe with so many Member States and with so much competition, you must pay attention. If a European official legislates in a specific field, it is quite normal to consult the people most competent in that field”. He explains that the intention is to work in the “most transparent way possible”.
Written with the help of Vanessa Witkowski and Graziella Jost, of the Brussels office.