With movies such as Inside Job and Thank you for Smoking or TV series like House of Cards, the US model of influencing decisions and policies of legislators, also known as “pressure and purchase”, has become famous worldwide as enshrining the activity of lobbyists or, more formally, public affairs managers. Millions of US dollars are being spent on influencing legislators, especially during critical moments, as can be seen by latest data regarding Facebook.
However, this does not completely hold true for the European Union. Or rather: it is true that a few dozen large corporations have the material resources to attend all the available discussion fora in Brussels and thus can be regarded as “insiders” of EU Institutions, having dramatic influence on EU policy-making (as researched, among others, by the studies of Scott Greer on EU health policy-making), in many informal as well as formal ways. However, influence at the EU policy-making level is based on a peculiar and sophisticated balance of “technocratic” elements and more traditional deployment of material resources.
For its part, Brussels has historically been active in implementing strong surveillance over anti-trust, competition and monopolies; also lobbying in the EU is, to some extent, based on a much more sophisticated and subtle activity than in the US: the supply of technical expertise and information, including online consultations. By providing this info on complex technical procedures, research or market data, multinational corporations, as well as European and national associations, gain access to the process of public policy framing at EU level, de facto controlling it implicitly. It would seem a fair deal, as both sides are happy about the exchange (information/expertise for access to public policy framing). However, in the longer run, that apparent win-win situation starts distributing benefits unequally, contributing to producing an unbalanced, structural dependence of the EU institutions on multinational corporations and associations.
Lobbying at the EU: Actors and strategies
EU governance is unique. For this reason, interest groups active in Brussels develop, as brilliantly formulated by scholars such as Chalmers, Bouwen and Kluwer, tailored strategies in relation to the specific EU Institutions they aim to target. This happens also because, from the very beginning, interest groups have been granted access to policy framing procedures to the extent that procedures and transparency are normally respected (not always the case, as in the 2015 case of Philip Morris International and British American Tobacco).
Without falling into excessively schematic interpretations, one may say that:
- The European Commission represents the interest of the EU as a whole and is the target primarily of transnational firms, which supply information about technical expertise and market data as well as pushing their own interests;
- The European Parliament, representing the interest of the EU citizens, is usually the target, primarily, of European associations, supplying information about aggregated EU interests;
- Lastly, the Council of Ministers, which represents EU Member States, is the target primarily of domestic associations, supplying information about governments’ interests.
On the role of information and technical expertise
Some elements contribute to increasing the implicit lobbying power of players such as transnational firms and European associations. In particular, interest groups are well aware that supplying continuously sifted information and framing it for very specific areas of policies maximises the impact of their lobbying. In addition, gathering information intelligence by attending scientific conferences globally and attending collective fora and stakeholder platforms allows them to accumulate an information and expertise capital to invest, later on, in Brussels. The hyper-specialization, and the involvement of “independent” recognized experts, combined, in the most problematic cases, with classic “pressure and purchase” elements such as letter, call, dinner or explicit lobbying (mobilizing citizens’ support) can boost the chances of success.
The Paradox of EU lobbying
The Commission is indeed the supra-national and technocratic institution par excellence, regarded worldwide as paradigmatic by policy-makers and scholars interested in region-building processes as well as in global governance. On some occasions, such as the recent General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), the Commission has been at the very forefront of implementing visionary and state of the art policies. However, several factors often curtail its powers when asking for expertise and information. First of all, it has been plagued by a number of controversies, such as the Santer Commission scandal and the current Selmayr episode. Secondly, the EC is quantitatively and qualitatively understaffed in comparison to large firms and European associations; it possesses immense databases but cannot properly analyse them. Even if the Commission disposes, at least theoretically, of the whole picture on the state of EU, it rarely benefits from it. It is undermined, inter alia, by lack of coordination between DGs or tensions between Member States, interested in zero sum game trade diplomacies, as the emblematic 2012 “Solar panel” trade war illustrates, with China strategically trying to divide (and rule) EU countries, or as more recent events involving defense underline. The resulting paradox is that the Commission allows transnational firms to access public policies by demanding information but is unable to fully analyze or understand the info it gets! The more technical expertise/information the EC demands in return for access to policy-making, the weaker it becomes vis-à-vis transnational firms and lobbying associations.
A reframe of public policy framing?
In conclusion, it is not infrequent that transnational firms and European associations influence EU public policies by virtue of superior technical expertise or market information, lobbying at the EU level being the perfect example of implicit influence based on knowledge asymmetry. Clearly, this very specific model of lobbying does not necessarily exclude, as we have seen, the coexistence with more classic forms of pressure over policy-makers, in particular at the national level (in Paris, London Berlin or Rome the “pressure and purchase” tactics are most probably still the standard). On the contrary, recent studies suggest the synergy of “technocratic” elements of lobbying coexisting with more classic deployment of material resources (human capital) to influence policy-making. Before allowing private actors into EU public policy framing, one ought to consider better practices for counter-balancing the structural EU dependence caused by lack of information, such as ensuring civil servants enjoy, as well as sound ethics, technical skills and powerful in-house research and expertise, together with tasks that do not simply reflect merely administrative tasks but more “creative” features.
The article is based on two conferences by the author on the topic “Technocracy and EU policy-making”, the first held in Fribourg (Switzerland) last April and the second taking place in Lisbon in October.