Interest Groups in the European Arena: ‘A Necessary Evil’?

© European Union 2022 – Source : EP

By Maria Urbina Fonseca

On December 9th, 2022, a corruption scandal of unprecedented scale involving Morocco and Qatar was exposed, implicating several Members of the European Parliament, including the Greek MEP Eva Kaïlí, who was then Vice-President of the European Parliament. This scandal, called “Qatargate,” highlighted the controversial role of interest groups within European institutions, particularly the European Parliament.

What is an interest group?

The term “interest groupcan be defined as an entity that seeks to represent the interests of a specific section of society in the public space. These groups engage in lobbying activities, which are “activities carried out by interest representatives with the aim of influencing policy or legislation-making or decision-making processes”. The nature of these groups, also called “lobby,” is diverse. A lobby can be a consulting firm, a company or trade association, a think tank or academic institution, a religious organization, or a public entity such as regional representations. Regardless of their nature, they all have the same objective: to influence the decisions of decision-makers.

The European Legislative Process from Proposal to Publication

The legislative process offers lobbyists multiple opportunities to influence public policies. The European legislative process begins with a proposal from the European Commission, which is the executive body of the European Union. This proposal can be made at the request of a member state, the European Parliament, or the Commission itself. Once the proposal is on the table, it is subject to examination by the European Parliament and the Council of the European Union, both of which are legislative institutions. The European Parliament is directly elected by the citizens it represents; the Council of the European Union, on the other hand, represents the governments of the member states. Both institutions must adopt the proposal before it becomes European legislation.

When the proposal is adopted by the European Parliament and the Council of the European Union, it is signed by the President of the European Parliament, the President of the Council of the European Union, and the President of the European Commission. Subsequently, the legislation is published in the Official Journal of the European Union. Lobbyists can engage with the European legislative process through various channels, including contacting the European Commission, the European Parliament, the Council of the European Union, or specialized expert groups and committees. Public consultations organized by the EU also offer opportunities for lobbyists to provide feedback and seek to influence public opinion.

Regulating Lobbying in Brussels

Brussels, the capital of the European Union, is often regarded as a hub for lobbyists. Currently, more than 12,500 organizations are represented in Brussels by approximately 50,000 lobbyists, with an estimated budget of 1.5 billion euros in 2017. The role of lobbyists is often perceived as opaque and challenging to regulate, which raises many concerns about their influence on European policies. To address these concerns, the European Union has implemented several legislative measures to ensure transparency and integrity in political decision-making.

Since 2011, the EU has maintained a transparency register that catalogues the organizations and individuals engaged in lobbying activities with EU institutions. This register was further strengthened through an interinstitutional agreement reinforced on May 20th, 2021.Managed jointly by the European Parliament and the European Commission, the register is mandatory for all interest groups seeking access to European institution premises. In addition, registered organizations must adhere to a code of conduct aimed at ensuring transparency, ethics, and integrity in lobbying endeavours. These organizations commit to disclosing all relevant information about their funding and lobbying activities, while also complying with ethical rules regarding conflicts of interest.

However, the effectiveness of the transparency register is frequently criticized due to the absence of sanctions for non-compliance with the rules and the limited control exercised by the European Commission over lobbying activities.

“A necessary evil”?

The Qatar Gate scandal has prompted citizens to question the role that interest groups in European policy-making. Interest groups indeed play an important role in the decision-making process of the European Union. They represent the interests of a wide range of actors that European institutions, particularly the European Commission, perceive as legitimate sources of expertise in their respective economic sectors. As early as 1787, James Madison expressed in Federalist No. 10 that interest groups are essential to the proper functioning of democracy. They can help identify problems, formulate solutions, and provide valuable information to decision-makers. By fostering a more participatory and inclusive form of democracy, where citizens and stakeholders are the main actors in policy-making, the collaboration between lobbyists and institutions has the potential to offer tangible solutions to citizens’ issues.

However, it would be naive to view lobbying in such an idealistic manner. It is evident that we cannot equate the influence of small citizen associations with that of large industrial groups, professional associations, non-governmental organizations, and consumer groups. These entities possess significant financial, human, and political resources, enabling them to assert their positions more effectively with decision-makers. Nevertheless, does this mean we should discredit all lobbying activities or completely lose trust in European institutions?

And after the Qatar Gate scandal?

The Qatar Gate scandal emphasizes that the issue lies not with lobbying itself but rather with the inadequate regulation of lobbying practices within European institutions. It is certain that the current lobbying regulations in the European Union are insufficient and fail to prevent private interests from exerting undue influence over the European decision-making process. There still exist numerous opaque areas and lenient rules that create opportunities for lobbying to become corrupt.

During a press conference in December, Roberta Metsola, the President of the European Parliament,  announced that a series of reforms are planned for the beginning of 2023. Additionally,  Stéphane Séjourné, President of the Renew Europe group in the European Parliament, proposed the establishment of a High Authority for Transparency in Public Life. This authority, inspired by the French model, would be responsible for monitoring the assets and conflicts of interest of personnel within European institutions.

It is urgent for institutions to take immediate action and make decisions aimed at enhancing transparency and integrity in lobbying practices within the European Union. Such measures are vital for the effective functioning of European democracy and to uphold the trust of European citizens in their institutions.