Interest groups in EU decision-making

This library note briefly examines the context and the main features of Interest Group (IG) activity towards the EU institutions. It then presents some key findings from recent research on the policy impact of IGs. It finally sketches the regulatory framework, linking to relevant documents.

IGs as an integral part to EU integration: “Interest groups” is an overarching definition covering the whole range of actors who carry out activities to influence policy-making. They can be characterized by reference to three notions:

  • IGs will have at least a minimum of organization (i.e. not all loosely identified social movements are IGs)
  • IGs pursue an interest linked to specific policy outcomes (as opposed to generic values or principles – but see below on “diffuse” interests)
  • IGs seek to influence policy-making acting as private actors, i.e. not by competing for electoral mandate.
  • Some aspects of EU integration explain why EU institutions are particularly open to interest representation:
    The EU is about regulation. EU integration focused from the very beginning on detailed regulation of specialized policy areas (coal and steel, customs). Its institutions and its relatively small civil service are by definition heavily reliant on technical expertise for policy definition. This has always been the case for the European Commission, as the sole initiator of legislation, but has increasingly become the case for the European Parliament too, as it has gained substantial co-legislating powers. The representation of specific interest groups, (especially employers and trades unions, but also the rather loosely defined “various interests”) was institutionalized early in the Economic and Social Committee, which has subsequently defined itself as the main linkage between EU institutions and organized civil society.
    The EU needs participation. At least until 1979, traditional mechanisms of representative democracy legitimized EU institutions only indirectly. This may explain the institutions’ early interest in participatory democracy, through preliminary consultation of civil society and through a structured social dialogue, to which the EU can delegate consensual policy-making in specific areas (art. 154 TFEU). Developing further on the Social protocol annexed to the Maastricht treaty, the Lisbon treaty consolidated these elements of participatory democracy in art. 11 TFEU, including the Citizens’ Initiative and structured dialogue with, inter alia, churches.
    Interest representation can be a two-way avenue. Institutions have an incentive to keep communication flows with IGs open, as these can function as multipliers and catalysts of support for specific policy orientations. There is some evidence to the effect that selection and funding by EU institutions actually helps shaping the landscape of IG with whom the institutions interact.

    “Does it really work”? IG impact on policy
    It has widely been assumed that lobbying success varies according to the nature of the interest at stake, in particular that specific interests are more likely to influence policy-making than diffuse ones. The membership of specific IGs (also called “sectional” in literature) is generally restricted to a section of society (e.g. farmers, chemical industry), each member of which individually perceives the cost/benefit ratio of a policy proposal. Diffuse or “cause” groups represent wider beliefs or principles (e.g. social, human rights, consumer- or environmental protection), normally with an open-ended membership for whom the configuration of cost/benefit is less clear or tangible. This arguably puts diffuse IGs at a disadvantage when it comes to organizing themselves, deploying human and financial resources and acquiring information. They are equally said to be at a disadvantage when it comes to supplying technical expertise to decision-makers.

    It has further been suggested that the organizational form of an IG has an impact on the success of its activities. In this line of thought, IGs are said to have better access to policy-making if they are able to supply the “access goods” needed by the institutions. These goods are 1) technical expertise; 2) information on a possible common European interest on the issue at stake, and 3) information on the configuration of interests at national level on the issue at stake. The Commission, wishing to broker a non-trivial compromise between Member States, will be willing to find out what representatives of the specific interest see as the European general interest, whereas it would be less interested in knowing the exact configuration of domestic interests in Member States. In this hypothesis, companies large enough to be active at EU level and European associations of companies would be expected to be more successful than national associations.
    However, the fact that IGs with a particular organizational form, or IGs representing specific interests have easier access to EU institutions does not necessarily imply that they are more successful in influencing policy.
    However, another branch of research challenges the above hypothesis using data from the most basic form of IG representation, i.e. preliminary public consultations by the Commission. H. Klüver used text-analytical tools to map the policy preferences of over 2600 IGs on the basis of their submissions to consultations on 56 policy issues between 2000 and 2008. She then traced their possible influence on the proposals resulting from consultations.

    Contrary to the hypotheses, this sample does not show a strong correlation between the nature of the interest (specific vs. diffuse) or the organizational form (company, EU-level IG, national IG) on one side, and the available human resources or information output (number of pages of submissions issued) on the other side.
    Even as regards policy outcomes, IG preferences are found back in final proposals in around 50% of the cases, without (statistically significant) variation according to whether the IG represented a specific or diffuse interest, or whether they were companies, national associations or EU associations. In other words, individual companies are not systematically more successful than associations in influencing policy outcomes. It is rather the number of IGs sharing the same policy preferences that correlates positively with successful influence. This resonates with the suggestion, put forward by other scholars, that the complex, multi-level, consensual system of governance of the EU by itself encourages the rise of broad IG coalitions rather than lobbying by individual actors.

    The complex statistical methodology in the work summarized above illustrates the obstacles that arise when trying to gauge the success of interest representation. Studies based on large samples will hardly succeed in establishing causal links at micro level. “Thick” description of individual cases may provide deeper insights, but will hardly warrant generalizations. In fact, many of the references found in the literature are anecdotes or case-studies. Some are reported below.

    It is acknowledged, for example, that the liberalisation of transport, energy, telecommunications in the late 80s took place despite strong IG opposition. In another policy area, a study commissioned by Green MEPs tracks the IG impact by analyzing the source of amendments on two key environmental files: the F-gases and REACH regulations. For 61% of the amendments tabled on selected sections of REACH, it could be ascertained that the source was outside the EP, although it was seldom a known one. On agricultural policy, a Czech paper contrasts the (assumed) strength of the EU agricultural IGs with the cleavages accounting for the weakness of the Czech national ones. Finally, when discussing the origins of the European Transparency Initiative itself (see below), Greenwood (2011) gives an account of the role IGs played in its establishment and of the complex, two-way interaction with Commission services.
    Sources generally agree that Council bodies are less subject to IG activity than the Commission or EP. Some argue however that lobbying the Council mostly occurs indirectly, through linkages between national administrations and national IGs. Moreover, high-level bargaining across policy areas is said to make policy outcome at the Council less predictable, which would discourage lobbying at that level.

    Features of IG groups at EU level
    Reflecting the complex multi-level governance of the EU, around 2/3 of EU IG groups are federations of national associations. European federations are generally more focused on the EU level of policy making and highly visible on that stage, despite having fewer resources than their national members. Bridging national cleavages to reach internal consensus may be problematic for these groups. Moreover, large companies by now tend to lobby individually, or through organizations allowing direct individual membership rather than through federations.
    Business interests are said to constitute around 80% of established EU IG groups and largely outnumber non-business interests. This is partly due to the early response to EU integration on the part of national industry associations, with the main actors such as Business Europe (then UNICE), CEEP, Eurochambres founded already in 1958-1961. Consumer organizations quickly federated too, founding BEEUC in 1962.

    Diffuse interests, for example in environment, organised only later, with the European Environmental Bureau set up in 1974 and a subsequent proliferation of EU-wide organizations in the mid-1990s, reflecting the new EU powers in this policy area. The European Women’s Lobby was founded in 1990. Groups representing diffuse interests are heavily reliant on EU funding and capacity-building support.
    The EU IG system has been characterised as pluralist: usually no group has a monopoly of representation in a policy area. For example, groups active in agricultural policy will reflect a product specialization, but they will also compete and bargain across their specialized fields and indeed with environmental and consumer groups.

    The (self) regulatory framework for IGs
    Soft-law instruments regulating or promoting self-regulation of IG activity in EU institutions date back a few decades. They seek to regulate the institutions’ interaction with IGs mainly by encouraging compliance with codes of conduct, and by making IG activity transparent to the wider civil society.
    Early instruments such as the Commission CONECCS database (launched in 1992) had a focus on IG representativeness, defined as being active in several Member States. This may be explained by institutional interest in the IGs’ possible function as multipliers and catalysts of debate. A strong emphasis on legitimisation through transparency emerged later, with the 2001 White Paper on Governance.
    Internal guidelines for dealing with lobbyists, based on the Commission ones, were adopted at the EP in 1994. In 1996 they were codified in the Rules of Procedure. A new code of conduct for MEPs was adopted after the 2011 “cash for laws” scandal.
    An overhaul of the early instruments came with the European Transparency Initiative, launched in 2005. It comprised standards for public consultations, a code of conduct for officials, one for IG groups, as well as various other disclosure elements designed to make EU institutions more accountable.

    The IG regulation component of the ETI resulted in 2008 in the Commission’s register for IG representatives. Despite a persisting disagreement on the voluntary or compulsory nature of an IG register, Parliament and Commission merged their registers in 2011. The resulting Transparency Register (TR) still provides for voluntary registration, although with incentives, inter alia as regards the weight given to IG submissions and easier access to EP premises.
    The TR is managed by a secretariat staffed by Commission and EP staff. The Council has been invited to join, and the GSC sends observers to the joint secretariat’s meetings. Following the first annual report, a review of the functioning of the TR will begin in June 2013.

    Registration requires a commitment to abide by the Code of Conduct, the disclosure of the interest represented, the type of IG (NGO, consultancy, law firm etc.). The budget and sources of funding have to be indicated for some types of IGs, or otherwise an estimate of the resources devoted to interest representation. The system allows for random checks by the Commission and for complaints by third parties on the accuracy of data. Sanctions, including cancellation from the register, are foreseen.

    Whether registration should be compulsory is still debated. Referring to a recent consultation of registrants, the annual report notes that both NGOs and public affairs consultancies among the respondents were in favour of stricter disclosure requirements and of mandatory registration for all types of IGs, including for law firms when acting as interest representatives. Law firms are still under-represented among registrants, with confidentiality issues being cited as the reason for not registering.

    At the end of 2012, some 5400 organizations had chosen to register, of which 48% as in-house lobbyists and trade associations, and 28% as NGOs.

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