About five weeks ago, I took part in a debate concerning the legitimacy and efficiency of lobbying in the EU. I had never really given this issue enormous ideological and ontological attention, which is why my first spontaneous question was, “why should we suppose lobbying is not legitimate in the first place?”. One answer I received from one of the participants to the debate struck me, making me stop to rethink about the very basis of lobbying itself for a minute. Which is the reason why I find it worth reporting here.
Now, I am well aware that the lobbying culture varies greatly across EU countries, and that in some member states lobbying is not considered as a fully legitimate part of the political and democratic system. That is probably the provenience of the opinion against lobbying. I was told, very naturally, that lobbying is not legitimate because “no one nominated them, or chose them, or voted for them, or gave them the legitimacy to be there” (Them refers to the lobbyists of course). Lobbyists are often referred to as “interest representatives”, but representatives of whose interest? It could be held that lobbyists are not representing anyone’s interest, except for their own or the interest of their company’s CEO. They are not representing the interest of the workers of their own company, let alone the interest of society or a part of it.
The next spontaneous question would then be: does the same not go for NGOs? NGOs as well tend to defend their own interest, which they believe is also in the interest of society, but neither a lobbyist nor an NGO representative are very prone to going around member states in order to ask people for their opinion. So, both just take for granted that they are working for the common good, but neither has a real basis to claim that. Should lobbying then be banned from our political systems? Of course, input into policy making is fundamental to make more balanced and legitimate policies. But who makes the input? On the one hand, there are interest representatives, trade unions, business federations and so on, who represent a collective interest of the people that gave them a mandate to do so. These interest representations are consulted regularly in order to give input on the mandate. On the other hand, there are also own-interest representatives; that is people who back up their own policy opinions or aims behind a fictitious popular support that, even if present, is strategically silent. Should there not be a difference in approach and access that these two categories have to civil servants?
If we shift the debate to lobbying in the context of the EU political sphere, even more questions arise. The Transparency Register and the system of daily access passes that the European Parliament and the European Commission put in place are surely a good starting point. Are they, however, sufficient to also constitute an ending point? Surely these two methods (partly) inform the public of who is involved in interest representation activities and with what kind of budget.
Is there, however, a way to know what actually happens behind the closed doors of the physical meetings? Again, we all know that bribery is very different from lobbying, and the EU institutions have done a great job in tackling this. Still, it might be argued that citizens have the right to know that a certain article of a certain directive was not drafted by the civil servants that are paid and hired to work in their interest, but rather pushed for by private actors. There is currently no way to know this, except spending months researching the topic and assuming that a certain company influenced legislation in a certain way. This all leads to another core question: is the current system transparent enough?
The Transparency Register is, of course, a very useful list of actors, but the public also has the right to know what those listed actors do once they are listed there. And the public also needs to know that registration in the Transparency Register is obligatory, and no actor who is not in the register is allowed to even come close to the borders of the City of Brussels.
I am not entirely convinced of these arguments, but I acknowledge their importance. That is why the one thing I am convinced about is that, until we solve the legitimacy and transparency problems, all the discussions about effectiveness of lobbying are pure speculation.
Article By Emanuele Guicciardi