The evolution of lobbying in Europe

The days when people in Europe thought of lobbying as something informal and somehow “dodgy,” something that is practiced in a Twilight Zone and often enough involves bribery and other criminal acts, are finally over. Today, we experience a new era of Washington-style professional lobbying in Brussels and in the European Union member-state capitals.

EU lobbying nowadays is seen as the professional practice of advocating private and public interests versus legislators and decision-makers. Consequently, lobbying is no longer seen as an annex to PR only, but rather, as a high-end management discipline dealt with by lawyers and former politicians. But that took its time.

Lobbying in Brussels was born in the late 1970s. Up to that time, “diplomatic lobbying” at the highest levels remained the rule. There were few lobbyists involved in the system, and except for some business associations, representatives’ offices were rarely used. The event that sparked the explosion of lobbying was the first direct election of the European Parliament in 1979. Up until then the European Parliament consisted of members delegated from the national parliaments. Through that change, EU decision-making became more complex, and companies increasingly felt the need for an expert local presence to find out what was going on in Brussels.

The foundation of lobbying was therefore the need to provide information. From that developed the need to influence the process actively and effectively. The stronger the EU developed from a member-states organization to its own political player in the world, the more policy areas it covered, the more important it became as a lobbying target. With the EU enlargement in 2004 this development has taken a further step, bringing in not only a lot more players and stakeholders but also a wide range of different political cultures and traditions.

While on the one hand, this process and the latest lobbying scandals in the U.S. and in some EU member-states have led the EU to push for stricter and more formalized lobbying rules, the EU institutions at the same time have expressively acknowledged the described function of, and the need for, lobbying the EU. Those involved in the legislative process in the EU are — as their counterparts in the U.S. have been doing for many years — increasingly turning to industry representatives, associations, NGOs, and law and lobbying firms in order to obtain comprehensive information on technical, economic and legal issues before making a decision. And there is a reason why: There are currently 5,700 EU regulations and 1,800 directives implemented on the EU level that EU legislators have to deal with. Further, those European legislative acts have a tremendous effect on the national legislative systems of the EU member-states. While the regulations can be compared to national laws, the directives have the character of frame laws that have to be transformed into the member-states’ national laws.

Where is this process going? Outlooks are always difficult and in some cases are nothing more than looking into the crystal ball. But EU lobbying in general is not so much different from lobbying in other world capitals like Washington. The developments that the well-established U.S. legal lobbying market expects in the next 20 to 30 years might therefore give some guidance of what parallel EU developments could look like.

Definitely, EU lobbyists, much more in the future, will have to take into account one fact: They cannot act in isolation; they are part of a global lobbying agenda. Consequently, EU lobbying will be a strategic core business function for companies and all other stakeholders that wish to compete successfully and operate internationally in the future, since EU lobbying will be at the leading edge of complex governmental policies and respective stakeholder demands.

Alber is a founder and senior partner of Alber & Geiger, the first government relations law firm in Europe. Before that, he was vice president of the European Parliament and advocate general of the European Court of Justice. Geiger is a founder and managing partner of Alber & Geiger. Previously, he was head of the EU Law Center of Ernst & Young, and president and CEO of Cassidy & Associates Europe.