K Street firms working US-EU trade talks from both sides of the Atlantic

Lobbyists on K Street will be embarking upon their own round of shuttle diplomacy this year between Washington and Brussels.

As negotiations gear up for what could be a massive trade deal between the United States and the European Union (EU), firms are making their offices in what’s considered the EU capital a major selling point to clients.

Philip Torbol, a partner in the Brussels office of K&L Gates, said companies are going to need representation on both sides of the Atlantic once the trade talks get under way.

“Potentially, this could be the ultimate lobbying exercise,” Torbol said. “You will have to do a lobbying campaign in the US, as well as a lobbying campaign in the EU at the same time.” 

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Lobbyists are already hopping on planes to prepare for the trade talks, which were announced a few weeks ago. In early March, Covington & Burling flew its EU government affairs team into Washington to help strategize for the year. 

“We head over there when need be. They come over here when need be,” said Dan Bryant, chairman of Covington & Burling’s public policy and government affairs practice group.

Technology makes coordination between Washington and Brussels easier, but lobbyists say the five-hour time difference is a challenge. More often than not, lobbyists in Brussels end up working on Washington time with late-night conference calls and video meetings.

“They do get a short end of the stick,” Bryant said. “Their hours can be challenging, and email is also 24/7.”

And just like Washington firms stock their rosters with former House members and ex-senators, offices in Brussels compete to hire ambassadors and members of the European Parliament.

Covington, with 40 staff members in Brussels, has Wim van Velzen, a former member of the European Parliament, and Jean De Ruyt, once Belgium’s ambassador to the EU. Hogan Lovells’ Brussels practice includes Hugo Paemen, who was the head of the European Commission’s Washington delegation.

“You can’t just send Junior Jones over there and he says, ‘I’m going to lobby the EU,’ ” said Mike House, director of the legislative group at Hogan Lovells. “You’ve got to have the depth. … You got to have the reputation inside Brussels. They don’t care about your reputation here.” 

Qualifications can also look different in Brussels: There aren’t many lobbyists in Washington who can say they have an Order of the British Empire (OBE). 

Paul Adamson, who was awarded his OBE last year, had been in Brussels lobbying for more than 30 years before joining Covington in 2012. He noted how advocacy has grown in Europe.  

“The issue when I was starting out was it just wasn’t enough to say you’re better than your competitor, you had to explain why the EU was important and why you needed to be here,” Adamson said. 

Not every major firm has been able to cement a foothold in Brussels. Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld, one of K Street’s highest-earning firms, decided to close its office in Belgium in 2007. Akin Gump still maintains a London office, however. 

Donald Pongrace, a partner at Akin Gump, said the firm decided to close the Brussels shop to “refocus our efforts towards expanding into other markets in Europe, the Middle East and Asia.”

“There is an increased U.S. interest in Brussels for obvious reasons. However, I would say that U.S. law and lobby firms are still not very active in the Brussels lobbying scene,” said Albi Alla, an associate with Alber & Geiger. 

Alla said Washington lobby firms are “better off” sending their EU work to shops like his, which specialize in European lobbying, and vice versa. Holland & Knight, for example, often refers clients to Alber & Geiger, and sometimes the firms work together on joint accounts.

Lobbyists expect the trade talks to keep them busy in the months and years ahead. 

They predict clients will want to see how the governments try to reconcile separate sets of rules for huge swathes of their economies — from agricultural tariffs to online privacy protections to automobile manufacturing,

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“The real game-changer here is to rationalize the regulatory regimes,” said John Veroneau, a former deputy U.S. trade representative with Covington & Burling. “There will be some that will see rationalization as a good thing. … But there will be some companies and industry sectors who like the status quo and don’t want things to change.”

The push-pull will involve some serious lobbying muscle.

“This could be an incredibly significant trade agreement where you will need to promote and protect your interests,” said Bruce Heiman, who helps lead K&L Gates’ policy and regulatory practice. 

Firms with a European outpost say it will give them a leg up on competitors as trade negotiations move forward. Among those hoping to win over clients is C2 Group, which just this week joined FTI Consulting and gained an office in Brussels.

Tom Crawford, a founding partner for C2 Group, said his firm has already landed a big client because of the new connection to the EU capital.  

 “We hope we can really differentiate ourselves in the market by having two well-established teams in Washington and Brussels,” Crawford said. 

Despite the work on the U.S.-EU trade deal, several lobbyists said Brussels is still a step behind Washington’s influence industry. 

“The Europeans are still learning. But they see their American counterparts establish themselves in Brussels and saying that they need to catch up,” said Torbol with K&L Gates. “The EU is not ready to accept the more aggressive lobbying campaigns yet. If you’re a little more discreet about it, it will be accepted better in general.”

Ethics rules are also different in Brussels. There is a voluntary register for lobbying work, unlike the mandatory rule for disclosing clients here in Washington. However, Torbol believes transparency measures will soon toughen in Brussels.

“The European Commission is pushing everybody to register to the point that if you ask for a meeting, they are asking you, “Are you registered?” Torbol said.  

As the world shrinks, firms are not limiting themselves to Brussels. Several lobbyists touted their reach as global advocacy, with offices throughout Asia and Europe. 

“More and more clients are asking ‘Can you help us in China?’” said House, of Hogan Lovells.