What’s the real influence of lobbyists in Brussels?

Janina Berg
12 March, 2015

Napoleon would have probably made a good EU lobbyist, considering that he was, already at his time, aware of the fact that “ten people who speak make more noise than ten thousands who are silent.”

Today, however, Bonaparte would no longer be able to use this insight to his exclusive advantage. Why? Simply because he wouldn’t be the only one to know. Today, the tens of thousands of professional lobbyists in Brussels (often quoted estimates range from 15,000 to 30,000 lobbyists) who frequent the corridors of EU policy-makers on a daily basis to influence all sorts of legislative dossiers and files are making much more noise than one could have probably ever imagined during the times of the French Revolution.

Legislative Footprint White Background

Legislative Footprint

Today, the question our society is faced with is thus: how can we best ensure that the “silent” majority is also heard? How can EU policy-makers ensure a level playing field for the approximately 500 million of EU citizens that may appear to be more “silent” compared to the loud voices of lobbyists who happen to represent individual or business interests? And do we need to? Our answer is: yes, we do, if we want to ensure fair and balanced legislative outcomes.

Lobbying can be an essential ingredient to a healthy democracy. In an increasingly complex world, EU (and national) policy-makers rely on the delivery of technical expertise and innovative ideas from the outside world in order to be in the position to make informed and adequate decisions to the ever changing world we live in.

Yet, there is still the perception that lobbying is more about undue influence than citizen participation, part of an unhealthy nexus of business and political interests. More than half of Europe’s citizens (60%) consider their country’s government being run to a large extent or entirely by a few big interests (2013 Global Corruption Barometer), while 8 out of 10 European companies consider the links between business and politics being too close in their country and leading to corruption (2014 EU Anti-Corruption Report). In addition, according to the 2014 OECD report, 8 out of 10 legislators and 9 out of 10 lobbyists think inappropriate influence-peddling takes place, and 1 in 3 legislators consider it a frequent problem.

So, what can the EU do to tackle these concerns and to ensure that EU legislation has the public interest at its heart and that the risk of corruption, conflicts of interest and policy capture are reduced? One answer is to make the EU policy-making landscape more transparent and the real influence of EU level lobbyists more visible.

How? – Through the use of a legislative footprint!

What is a legislative footprint? – A comprehensive public record of lobbyists’ influence on a particular piece of legislation, detailing written input and contacs with lobbyists.

Who should use it? – All those involved in the EU policy-making process (public or elected officials alike).

How this could work in practice for the European Parliament and the European Commission? – Have a look at our Policy Paper on the EU Legislative Footprint that we have published today!

We have advocated for this approach for a long time and know there will be some familiar confusions and objections, such as the additional administrative burden. Another question often put forward is how to deal, for example, with coincidental meetings with lobbyists in corridors or while on travel. These and other concerns we hopefully have dealt with in the FAQ section of our EU Policy Paper. Another common rejoinder is ‘would you consider doing this yourselves?’ While we think this misses the point somewhat – we  do not think that civil society organisations have the same obligations or responsibilities as institutions that make legislation for 500 million people – we do see the value of being as transparent as possible about our own lobbying activities and showing people that there is nothing to fear with these kinds of disclosure. For that reason you can see our own ‘legislative footprint’ here.

For more information, see our related, blog post on Juncker’s plans for lobbying transparency (here), our call on MEPs to embrace an anti-corruption agenda (here) and more details from our Anti-Corruption Helpdesk on international experiences with the legislative footprint (here).

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