Euro-IR Project Main Index

The APC European Internet Rights Project

How the European Union works and how to influence its policies

By Martine Paulet

European Union: 15 member states (Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, the United-Kingdom)

Population:377 million people

GDP: 8,700 billion euros

The decision-making process in the European Union (EU) is both open and complex. Lobbying around it is therefore a reaction to the system. The European process is more open and more transparent thanks to the number of publications and its policy of "open-door" access. Because of its complexity, there has been a growth of professional lobbyists.

But lobbying has also been accelerated by the Single European Act of 1986 preparing for the Common Market. At this time many directives needed to be changed, especially technical harmonisation ones. Lobbying has slowed down since the Maastricht Treaty in 1992 which encouraged subsidiarity. Nonetheless, because the law is getting more technical, all interest groups, experts, national individuals, industries have more influence over the institutions. Brussels is second for the number of lobbyists after Washington and there are more than12,000 full-time employees working in lobbying there.

The European institutions view lobbying differently. The Council of Ministers is more oriented towards national positions. The co-decision procedure enhances the European Parliament role. And the European Commission actively encourages lobbying.

Consequently lobbying is now a technique and managing the influence and pressure a real job, although a quite recent one in Europe for there is no particular set of rules yet.

Lobbyists have become then important in the European democratic process.

After having summarised the roles of the different European public institutions, we will describe briefly what the European policies are in order to show the importance of method in lobbying in the EU.

The European institutions

1. The European Commission: the guardian of the Treaties

The Commission has 3 main roles:
  • Taking initiatives by making proposals in the decision-making process,

  • Having a legislative function in the final decisions,

  • Monitoring the application and implementation of community laws by member states.

It also represents the EU on the international level.

The Commission really takes its role very seriously and is proactive in taking initiatives.

Among the Directorates General (DGs), some carry much more weight than others: external relations, agriculture, internal market, competition. Although some others are also strengthening their position: employment, foreign policy.

There are 26 Directorates General (with 20 Commissioners appointed every 5 years), a secretariat general, a legal service, a spokesperson service. Nonetheless, the Commission has too small a number of civil servants (ca.15,000 of whom 11% are in the language service!) to co-decide for so many citizens. This is why think-tanks and committees are so numerous (ca. 1000). They are made up of independent experts, representative from pressure groups and officials from member states or the Commission. This allows external consultants to participate in the elaboration of the different proposals on the agenda. These are European-policy focused as their main purpose concerns the governance of the EU.

List of Directorates General:

2. The Council of Ministers: the real decision-maker

The Council responsibilities lay in:
  • Decision-making-powers,

  • Coordination of national policies,

  • Executive powers.

Each member state is represented by the relevant minister. Therefore the main function of the Council is to represent the interests of the member states at EU level. There is a Council for as many ministries: foreign affairs, agriculture, social affairs, industry, finance,…

In the voting system, qualified majority, i.e. 71% (internal market), or unanimity (defence, tax) remain the rule, even though simple majority voting (procedural purposes, Council functioning) is now allowed in the decision process.

Nonetheless, the objective is to seek a consensus among member states. The proposals (from the Commission) are sent to the Coreper (the Permanent Representative Committee) where the consensus work really starts to produce a decision to present to the Council for voting: e.g. items A ready to vote upon, items B needing some further discussion, etc.

It is Coreper that has the real power in Europe. It deals with issues that are particularly sensitive and controversial regarding environment, social affairs, transport and internal market.

There are also other committees and working parties and their members are only national officials. It is very rare to see non civil servant experts.

There is almost no transparency outside of the Council, therefore its members can usually debate quite frankly about their agenda items.

3. The European Parliament: the democratic voice

The role of the European Parliament is mostly to advise the Council and to monitor the activities of the Commission.

Its main tasks lay in:
  • The shaping of policy: taking initiatives, framing of legislation, monitoring,

  • The shaping of the EU system: changing decision-making procedures, redistributing powers between the EU and the member states,

  • The interaction between MEPs and the voters: reconciling positions, mobilising the public

There are consultation, cooperation and co-decision procedures with the other two institutions which depend on the type of European policy. Most subjects require simple majority voting.

The Parliament with 626 democratically elected MEPs has, at the moment, less decision-making power than the Council and the Commission. It cannot be compared to national assemblies. Nonetheless, the Parliament is constantly fighting to have more and more influence and is particularly important for social and ecological matters: environment, human rights, consumer protection…

The Parliament has expanded its role by making intensive use of its right to ask questions: on the budget, in areas remaining unsatisfactory or to relaunch important debates where the Commission is at a dead end. It is a driving force for change.

Gaining this influence means there is a dramatic need for expertise from external organisations. Parliament's work is really done within its Committees. These are:
Temporary Committees are also set up to deal with special issues. At the moment these are:
MEPs work with one or several assistants chosen intuiti personae, i.e. they can come from different backgrounds.

These Committees and European political parties have a large role in the Parliament's work processes. National factors are not necessarily as important as political ideology: The political groupings are:
  • PPE-DE Group of the European People's Party (Christian Democrats) and European Democrats

  • PSE Group of the Party of European Socialists

  • ELDR Group of the European Liberal, Democrat and Reform Party

  • Verts/ALE Group of the Greens/European Free Alliance

  • GUE/NGL Confederal Group of the European United Left/Nordic Green Left

  • UEN Union for Europe of the Nations Group

  • TDI Technical Group of Independent Members - mixed group

  • EDD Group for a Europe of Democracies and Diversities

  • NI Non-attached

Among the 15 member-states, the weight of MEPs from the so-called small countries is important as they are over represented. These small country representatives are always keen to develop their position compared to the 4 bigger ones (Germany, France, Italy, UK).

4. The European Council: the representation

The European Council was created to push things forward when they appeared to be deadlocked. It has now become a regular feature of the EU and meets "at least twice a year", bringing together the heads of state or government to exchange ideas, try to resolve deadlocked problems and give an impetus to the building of the EU. It provides the EU with a Presidency. The European Council's decisions are only very rarely put to a vote, but are embodied in "conclusions of the Presidency" statements. To become law they would have to follow the normal decision making route, starting with a Commission draft.

Every 6 months the Presidency pases to another member state.

There are 5 main area of activity for the Presidency of the EU:
  • The evolution of the EU,

  • Constitutional and institutional matters,

  • The economy and economics of the EU,

  • External relations,

  • Specific internal policy issues.

But the agenda also depends on priorities that member states decides for their Presidency.

5. The European Court of Justice: the EU's supreme legal body

European Union law is based on the Treaties, EU legislation, international law and judicial interpretation.

EU legislation is composed of Regulations, Directives, Decisions, and Recommendations and Opinions. They all derive from principles contained in the Treaties.

The large volume of European Union law makes it quite complex, but it does not deal with criminal law or family law. It is strongly focused on the economic activity of the EU. But has expanded to include environmental, health and safety at work, social welfare, and mutual recognition of educational and professional qualifications.

The Court of Justice has 2 main functions:
  • To be responsible for the direct application of European law

  • To interpret the provision of this law to keep it consistent and uniform among member states.

Therefore the ECJ reinforces EU law. Its decisions strengthen the EU's policy competence. The principle of mutual recognition avoids increasing the amount of legislation when there is an equivalent in a member state. And finally, the ECJ often clarifies the powers and functioning of the European institutions.

The ECJ plays an important role in establishing an EU legal order, and it helps the building of the EU. It is a real supra-national institution not influenced by member states. And it is directed at European integration and at individual citizens, such as protecting human rights.

Any judgment of the ECJ can be found in the European Court reports and in the Official Journal Of the European Communities (OJ).

6. The Economic and Social Committee - "Organised Civil Society"

Members from the 15 member states represent the interest of various economic and social groups.

The ESC is consulted by the Commission and the Council, about agriculture, transport, training, consumer policy, environment policy, research, regional policies or social affairs. It then provides its opinions through the Official Journal Of the European Communities.

The 222 members of the ESC are divided in 3 groups: workers, employers and various interests.

But it is mainly an advisory committee with limited success in influencing the bigger institutions.

7. The Committee of the Regions

The Committee of the Regions is made up of 222 members from the regional and local activities to ensure their participation in the integration process. It is an advisory body to be consulted on training, culture, health, trans-European networks, and regional policy.

This institution has been created recently to give a voice to local and regional authorities. In the context of subsidiarity, regional issues are considered to be of importance. Nonetheless the COR has failed to establish an important role in European integration.

The COR position is thus very comparable that of the ESC.

8. The European Court of Auditors

The Court of Auditors annually writes the financial report of the EU. It examines the expenditure and revenue of the EU to ensure its transparency.

This Court also delivers opinions on various subjects: special reports on its own initiative or if another institution asks the Court to submit an opinion on a specific matter. The Council has to seek the Court's advice on financial regulations.

There are 15 auditors, one per member state.

There are tensions between this Court and the Parliament, the other body responsible for budgetary control. There doesn't seem to be the political will to improve financial controls and to limit fastidious procedures.

9. The European Investment Bank

The EIB is both a bank and an independent institution. It finances projects contributing to the development of the EU, up to 50% of the total cost.

Credits can be granted to public and private borrowers mainly for investment in the infrastructure, energy, industry, services and agriculture sector. The development projects of weaker regions of the EU are eligible for grants by the EIB, also development of transport and communication, environment, improvement of urban areas…

Projects must involve modernisation and contribute to the competitiveness of EU industry (as advanced technologies), must be of common interest to several member states, and must be financially viable.

The EIB invests outside of the EU too, and especially in Central and Eastern European Countries.

Therefore it has become a major international player. The EIB is particularly flexible and able to adapt to the evolution of the EU agenda.

The European Union policies

The Treaties determine EU policies. The Common Commercial Policy, the Common Agricultural Policy and the Competition Policy are examples. But a Treaty provision does not necessary guarantee a policy development. Environmental policy illustrates this. A fundamental condition of a successful policy is that the advantages outweigh the disadvantages.

The main policy areas have 5 origins:
  • The Single European Market. Such policies establishe the Single European Market with guarantees of free movement of goods, persons, services and capital and harmonisation of national laws,

  • Economic and financial policies leading towards Economic and Monetary Union,

  • Functional policies with clear functional purpose, the main ones being the regional policy and the social policy (particularly in the employment field), and also environmental, educational, cultural and consumer protection policies, and justice and home affairs policies or research and technological development policy,

  • Sectoral policies for agriculture, energy, fishing or steel,

  • External policies for external trade, foreign and security and development cooperation policies.

Some policy areas rely on extensive EU policy involvement: trade, agriculture, fishing, market and regulation policies.

Some policy responsibilities are shared with member states: regional, competition, industrial, foreign, monetary, environmental, equal opportunities, working conditions, consumer protection, movement across external borders, energy transport, macroeconomic, transport, combating terrorism and drug, and pensions policies.

And some policies areas have very limited EU involvement: health, education, defence, international crime, social welfare, housing, civil liberties and domestic crimes policies.

In practice not all these policies are successful because of the still numerous barriers in each member states. Some of them are non economic oriented but will develop in the future. There are few policy areas where the EU does not have at least some sort of involvement.

The EU policy model show the interaction of competing interests in the EU. The decisions often the result of bargains and compromises between these interests.

The interests

1. Different interest groups

There are 4 main categories of non-governmental interests lobbying around EU processes:
    a. Sub-national levels of government. The Committee of the Regions can be of support when regional power does exist in a member state. Many officers have also been appointed in different committees where they mostly lobby for national interests. And there are some regional representation offices directly in Brussels.

    b. Private and public companies. Multinational companies are very active in lobbying EU institutions, but mostly on a direct basis, without needing collective views from national government or other companies. They usually have an office in Brussels.

    c. National interest groups. Except the larger industrial or agricultural groups, these are often obliged to work through national offices or to seek the cooperation of European interest groups.

    d. Eurogroups. Of more than 550 eurogroups, around 50% represent industry and commerce, 25% agriculture and food, 20% services and 5% trade unions, environmental causes and other interests. These groups supplement national lobbies. Some of them, the umbrella groups, have a wide membership and recognition:
    • COPA (Committee of Professional Agricultural Organisation)
    • UNICE (Union of Industrial and Employers Confederation)
    • ETUC (European Trade Union Confederation)
    • EEB (European Environmental Bureau)
    • BEUC (European Bureau of Consumers’ Association)

But most groups are more narrowly focused and coherent. They seek to:
  • Gather and exchange information,
  • Have their interests and views incorporated into EU policy.

2. What to lobby?

Lobbying starts by knowing exactly what you want to achieve. Therefore the more upstream information you can get, the better. Monitoring carefully the activities of the Commission, the agenda of the Parliament and the global environment provides most of the clues to act early. Simply reacting to a European Union decision might often be too late.

The European institutions, and mainly the Commission and the Parliament attempt to have transparency of information. Many different publication are available, and are often free, plus there are regular updates on the relevant websites (green and white papers). So getting the information and gathering it on a regular basis is the ideal first step before starting a plan of action.

The first issue is to define what is the purpose of the lobbying. Is it to:
  • Inform one institution on a specific project on their agenda?

  • Amend a part of a Directive proposal?

  • Create a public awareness on social values?

  • Change the rules to get some funding through the credit lines of some DGs?

Getting to know the institutional process is also very crucial. You have to understand backward and forward motion between the Commission, the Parliament and the Council:
  • Commission proposes,

  • 1st reading in the Parliament, and advises,

  • Commission can amend the proposal,

  • 1st reading in the Council and votes,

  • 2nd reading in the Parliament up to a 3rd reading until the proposal is adopted or cancelled. The process from this 2nd reading to the final decision can last about 1 year.

Consequently, the sooner the lobbying starts, the more chance there is to influence the final proposal.

3. How to lobby?

Once one knows what to lobby, one has to make a thorough inventory of the situation:
  • Decision-process,

  • Legal process,

  • Interests, players,

  • Possible consequences,

  • Environment: political, cultural, legal,

  • Time dimension, chronology…

This inventory allows you to define a plan of action answering the following questions:
  • What to lobby for more precisely? Argued messages depend on the context. Analyse the consequences and possible opponents questions. It is also important to determine if the presentation will be written or oral.

  • Who will be the audience: the Commission, the Parliament? Who are the players, possible allies?

  • How to implement this plan: through the lobbyist, some intermediaries, another organisation? Do you need to go public with the media, or is it more strategic to remain discrete to express the arguments? The media have to be used very carefully. If there is no obvious interest for consumers or citizen it might be easier not to go public.

  • What will be the timing? The plan of action should be launched taking into consideration the European agenda

There are direct methods to gather information and start lobbying:
  • Personal visits.

  • Personal letters.

  • Informal contacts.

  • Hearings.

  • Public action.

  • Mass demonstrations.

This calls for strong personal skill and a sense of the rhythm of the EU.

On the other hand, there are indirect methods:
  • Friends or relations inside the system.

  • Assistance of decision-makers.

  • Mid-level civil servants.

  • Experts and scientific reports, studies…

  • Brokers and consultants.

  • Affiliated interest groups.

  • Political parties.

  • Election campaigning.

  • Mass media, adverts, publicity.

  • Court procedure.

Lobbying implies a very professional process including 3 main steps

A. Monitoring:

  • Gather the information

  • Know the rules of the game

  • Maintain contacts

  • Analyse information

  • Identify the consequences as opportunities or threats

B. Influence:

  • Define the objective to reach: realistic and positive

  • Analyse and evaluate

  • Be argumentative

  • Be collective with other partners, try to convince decision-makers with no opinion

  • Express and maybe go public

  • Find information relays

C. Follow-up:

  • Analyse the consequences, the press repercussions

  • Observe the reactions of the adverse parties

  • Decide upon a possible new action plan

4. Who to lobby?

Interest groups cannot normally directly approach the European Council or the Council of Ministers. Those are usually lobbied only through national governments.

The Commission is the main target for most interests for it is approachable. Interests have access to specialised information that the Commission is interested in. The Commission's negotiating process with the Council can also be strengthened if it can demonstrate that its proposals are supported by influential interests. On the other hand, if the Commission goes too far in the Directive process without consulting interest groups, it may face strong opposition by the Council, and even get rejected. Therefore, there is always a seat ready for the recognised eurogroups, rather than national groups.

The role and influence of the Parliament has grown with the Treaties and so now has the attention of lobbyists.

There are different ways to lobby the Parliament:
  • Use MEPs to get legislative initiatives to request to the Commission on existing proposals,

  • Encourage MEPs to build their own initiative reports to incline the Commission and the Council to act on current trends,

  • Circulate general information amongst MEPs to improve or change the image of a specific area of concern,

  • Approach directly MEPs to persuade them to vote in a particular way on a particular issue, or to support this view in a committee or in a political group,

  • Attend open hearings of committees or meetings with MEPs,

  • Get ready with reports when MEPS or officials wish to consult interests for their committees,

  • Persuade individuals MEPs to discuss specific matters with the Commission or their national governments.

The Economic and Social Committee is largely made up of interest representatives and acts as a forum for interest representation and expression. Therefore it remains a target for lobbying, even if it is a second-rank one.

Lobbying means following a very professional process to act instead of reacting. Getting credibility and legitimacy from the institutions is very important to becoming a real player and pursuing actions in the long term. The interest groups most successfully lobbying have:
  • Control of key information and expertise

  • Adequate resources

  • Economic weight (employment, consumerism…)

  • Political weight (local or national election electoral support)

  • Genuine representational claims

  • Cohesion (clear and consistent views)

  • Access to decision-makers (national and EU levels)

Interest group lobbying activity broadens the participatory base of the EU and therefore ensures that policy and decision-making is not only controlled by politicians and officials. Interest groups provide information to the EU which help improving the quality of the policies.

Even though there is a lack of fair balance between the lobbying groups, this system is not about to break down. Lobbying is an essential part of the decision-making processes of the EU. Consequently, lobbying for social policy is vital to the future of Europe.

Euro-IR Project Main Index