Many wince upon hearing the words "lobbying" or "lobbyist" in Europe; people seem to picture a lobbyist as an evil guy in a dark suit who comes from the rich elite, and who is outrageously overpaid to work for someone else's interests.

In a way, that is what lobbyists are: groups of people with certain interests who pressure institutions to pass legislation, which in the end will largely benefit them. They do often wear suits, and they are likely to be educated elites. On the other hand, the world is too demonised: that "someone else's interests" may involve passing gun-friendly laws, or it may involve sending humanitarian aid to Haiti.

The truth is, there are around 15,000 lobbyists in Brussels; who they are and what they do varies significantly. Ranging from the European Banking Federation to the Association of European Brewers, the nature of these many federations is not remotely the same. 

The rise of lobbying in Europe

Photo: rockcohen(CC-BY-SA)
Can the EU hear the voices of normal Europeans, or is the EU too clogged up with lobbyists' demands?

The lobbying phenomenon boomed during the 90s, as a result of the transfer of power from member states to the European Union. In principle, it was supposed to be a win-win situation: interest groups get the opportunity to raise their concerns and advocate for their cause, while institutions get expert analysis and a potential legitimisation of the decisions they might end up taking anyway.

But as the lobbying industry grew, so did the need and the will to regulate it. In a speech in 2005, Administrative Affairs and Anti-Fraud Commissioner Siim Kallas launched an idea to strengthen ethical rules for policymakers that would later become today's Transparency Initiative. This idea was implemented in 2008, through a register for which lobbyists can voluntarily sign up, and that obliges them to disclose their revenue and adopt a code of conduct.

Of course, the initiative had its controversies. Some complained that the depth of the financial disclosure was not enough, or that there was no auditing of the veracity of the claims each association made. But others also demanded equal application to different types of organisations. It is not only classic lobbies that are expected to participate; the register is equally applicable to NGOs and think tanks who emphasise independent research and the pursuit of public interest. At this point, all different types of interest groups became in some sense the circle of lobbying, which meant that for those who apply the "lobby=evil" logic, all Brussels business can be argued to be a part of evil.

It is perhaps the fact that the Transparency Initiative is at such an early stage, and the lack of differenciation between lobby groups, NGOs and think tanks, that affect the negative perception of Brussels' most rapidly growing industry. Many organisations call themselves lobby groups and think tanks at the same time, seeking to represent the specific interests of their members while claiming to do independent research. And as the Economist's prominent column Charlemagne's Notebook pointed out back in 2009, there is another dodgy side to Brussels think tanks and their independence.

"In Brussels, to simplify, too many think tanks get too much of their money from the EU institutions to do research projects that lack real intellectual independence," the column claimed.

Combining the unprecedentedly fast and entangled expansion of this business with the complex nature of the EU itself, it seems that confusion is inevitable.

 Lobbyists are part of our democracy whether we like it or not.

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