The EU remains one of the largest trading blocs in the world, a regulatory rule maker, and a key trading partner to the UK. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Brussels is a hot spot for organized interests with thousands of lobbyists mobilizing daily.
As policymakers in Europe attempt to navigate the post-Brexit and post-coronavirus world, the EU and its interactions with business will play a central role in everyone’s calculations.
Put simply, we cannot fully appreciate how the EU functions without studying, researching, and analysing business-EU interactions.
In our recent book, Business Lobbying in the European Union, we examine this relationship by addressing questions such as:
When and why do firms mobilize in Brussels? When and how does business influence EU policymaking? What is business’ role as a political actor in the EU? When, why, and how do EU institutions grant business interests access to policymaking?
To answer these questions, we examine business-government relations through an analytic perspective across three layers: the macro, the meso, and the micro.
The book’s macro perspective focuses on systemic features that influence the relationship and their evolution over time as EU integration has progressed.
We highlight business’ growing investment in building lobbying capacity in Brussels, the impact of treaties and agreements, and how domestic factors influence business activity at the EU level.
Interestingly, we observe business increasingly using political financing as a lobbying tool. However, over time a distinct lobbying style has emerged in Brussels, based primarily on the reputation and credibility of the firms’ government affairs directors in the eyes of EU officials.
The meso perspective examines how public policy influences business mobilization. Specifically, we show why regulatory policy fields have greater business activity than distributive fields.
Thus, for example, we observe greater business activity in policy related to finance, the environment, trade, or public health; conversely, we observe less business activity in policy linked to culture, youth policy, or education.
This is reflected in business mobilization around the European Commission’s Directorate Generals and the European Parliament’s committees responsible for these issues.
We highlight that business mobilization peaks at specific phases during the policy cycle – that is to say, business is active at key moments during the policymaking process, and it is not in a constant state of active lobbying.
The book’s micro perspective assesses the strategic choices that specific firms make to maintain their edge in the competitive lobbying environment in Brussels, such as their investment in human capital.
Although in the EU we have seen some famous cases off staff moving back and forth between EU institutions and the corporate sector (the so-called ‘revolving door’ phenomenon) our findings suggest that this is not as pervasive as in the US.
Generally, it seems that managers of government affairs offices stay in post long enough to both understand their own firm and the EU institutions they are dealing with.
Companies look to hire government affairs managers with specific competences, who can understand and champion their company’s goals while relating to technical experts and politicians in the EU’s institutions.
From our work we note three key lessons:
Diverse alliances are the new normal
For business to take advantage of the EU’s complex and evolving reality it must work more on building coalitions with other types of interests, such as civil society organizations, think tanks, and professional consultancies.
Traditionally, business have done so in the form of coalitions which mobilise around a particular issue and then dissipate. However, this is emerging as a long-term strategy, with firms looking to bring civil society groups on board by having representation on the advisory board.
Multi-venue-lobbying vs. venue shopping
Successful lobbying in the EU requires that businesses address multiple venues, rather than select specific targets.
Lobbying gains from one institutional arena can easily be lost in the next as the policymaking process moves on, and so this demands ‘smart mobilization’.
As informational needs change across the policy cycle different actors within the coalition are better tailored to advocate the firm’s interests.
Moreover, companies task specific teams with managing government affairs – rather than relying on generalists or the efforts of seniors functional managers.
These teams are staffed with experienced personnel that have developed networks and a good understanding of the policy and political procedures, both in Brussels and in the member states.
EU Intermediation: pluralist & unique
Finally, we identify a nuanced system with variation across levels, sectors, and individual actors.
The style of business-government relations we observe in the EU is exceptional. Whereas comparisons can be, and should be, drawn with other polities – such as the US, China, and Japan – assuming that business strategy or institutional demands in the EU context can be copied and applied into different settings, or vice versa, is an oversimplification.
The EU has a distinct multi-level regulatory regime, an elaborate political landscape, and considerable sectoral variation.
Businesses therefore employ a combination a diverse set of strategies that differ from other settings, national or supranational.
This book is a modest contribution to a vast body of work to which numerous scholars, policymakers, and business actors have contributed.
Having taken stock of the literature and our own work, we aim to contribute to our understanding of business-government relations in the EU, and by doing so move the debate constructively forward.
By David Coen, Professor of Public Policy at the UCL Department of Political Science / School of Public Policy and founding Director of the UCL Global Governance Institute, Alexander Katsaitis, Fellow in Public Policy & Administration in the LSE Department of Government and Matia Vannoni is Lecturer in Public Policy in the Department of Political Economy, King’s College London.