Lobbying in Europe. Studying influence to understand democracy
by Alberto Bitonti *
The European continent provides an incredibly rich picture of political cultures, of institutional frameworks, of governmental styles, of different social, economic and historical traditions. But is the game of political influence the same everywhere? How does lobbying work in such a diversified context? Studying public affairs and lobbying – not only at the EU level, but also in the various national environments – allows to better understand those political systems, offering a great insight of how democracy itself works today.
In order to get the actual dynamics of democracy today, looking at the game of political influence seems a pretty clever strategy. In fact, to analyze how the influence of power works and what role interest groups and the various actors of a political system play in public decision-making processes is extremely useful to understand that power, those processes and how the system itself operates.
This is what we tried to do in the book Lobbying in Europe. Public Affairs and the Lobbying Industry in 28 EU Countries (Palgrave Macmillan 2017), providing an overview of the lobbying industry in each of the 28 EU Member States (UK included) and in the supranational level of the EU institutions, looking at elements such as:
- the institutional framework and the political culture of each country
- the perception of lobbyists by public opinion and politicians
- the professionalization and the numbers expressed by the industry (such as the number of professionals, firms, university programs, professional associations, etc.)
- the regulation of the sector (through dedicated laws, side laws, self-imposed ethical codes, or in frameworks of no regulation at all).
A growth of the industry seems to be evident in most countries, at least in terms of people employed and turnover. Especially in the bigger European countries (Germany, UK, Italy, France, Spain), the number of lobbying firms or in-house public affairs departments seems to be on the rise, proving a general expansion of the industry. In around half of the cases, the presence of university courses and Master’s degrees in lobbying or public affairs seems to corroborate the hypothesis of the expansion of the industry. Despite very different situations in each specific country, a general trend towards growing professionalization is also visible, with the creation of lobbyists’ associations, codes of conduct and signs of more professional awareness, in big as in medium-size EU member-states, in older as in younger democracies. In this regard, a key role can be probably attributed to the common EU framework, considering a decision-making process in Brussels which traditionally enhances the participation of stakeholders and lobbyists.
Certainly, the growth of the lobbying industry can also be explained by a significant crisis of representative democracy and of its traditional actors, especially in older democracies. In the 20th century, political parties, and additionally trade unions and business associations, were the main characters of the political scene and the main reference for anyone wishing to influence a public decision; at least from the last two decades of the century, and ever more in the following years, a paramount evolution took place, involving historical, technological, social, economic and political changes, shaping the world of today and of the next decades.
The end of the Cold War, a closer European integration, the spreading of Internet and of digital technologies, a large process of liberalization of many economic sectors and of privatization of previously State-owned companies, the crisis of old parties and of classical representative democracy (proved by decreasing party memberships and electoral turnouts), the rise of NGOs and other private actors in the public arena, the increased importance of political marketing and communication, the personalization of politics and a growing concentration of power in the executives in comparison to legislative assemblies, the development of a more complex, multi-level and multi-dimensional political environment overall are all factors which play a fundamental role in changing the European panorama, creating more favourable conditions for the development of a public affairs industry, particularly where the roots of a lively civil society are more vigorous. In fact, political parties and the traditional labour and employers’ organisations, despite keeping to play a predominant role in many countries (especially those with a neo-corporatist tradition), do not fulfil the need of political representation as completely as before, allowing new subjects (single corporations, SMEs, NGOs, professional associations, etc.) to emerge in the public scene on their own, trying to influence the governmental process even without and outside political parties.
The wave of populism and “anti-political” parties rising in many EU countries in the recent years is probably a further symptom of the crisis of representative democracy as we knew it. In this regard, the development of a healthy and vibrant public affairs scene may even aspire to be an answer to this crisis, allowing a wider circle of subjects to earn a voice in the public arena of the future, flanking the old traditional actors and inserting new flows of legitimacy into the system.
Of course, in such a scenario, it is of the utmost importance to facilitate the best conditions for the development of a decision-making process fulfilling the requirements of accountability, transparency, openness and fairness, through effective regulations and smart policies favouring the actual functioning of representative democracy in the new scenario. In order to do so, scholarly research and deep understanding of the actual dynamics involving decision-making systems and the role that interest groups play in it are fundamental.
To get more information on Lobbying in Europe, to buy the book or to receive updates, you can visit the website www.lobbyingineurope.com.
* Alberto Bitonti is Professor of Politics at IES Abroad Rome, Fellow at the American University (Washington DC) and Adjunct Professor of Methodology of Social Sciences at LUISS Guido Carli (Rome). Mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @AlbertoBit
The information and views set out in this article are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Good Lobby.