According to Emilia Korkea-aho, an associate professor at the University of Eastern Finland and docent at the Faculty of Law, University of Helsinki, decision-making in the European Union has become increasingly complex, likely resulting in an increase of lobbyists’ power.
In public discourse, lobbying is often associated with corruption and other threats. And yet, what just as often remains overlooked is that democratic decision-making in the EU requires lobbyists, in addition to which lobbying also has a positive role in making sure decision-making is based on knowledge.
“Article 11 of the Treaty on European Union specifically states that institutions must give citizens, interest groups and those affected by EU policies the opportunity to take part in the decision-making process,” Korkea-aho says.
Resources available for lobbying vary by interest group, which is why the European Commission provides financial support to non-governmental organisations that rely on less substantial lobbying resources than, say, large corporations.
Korkea-aho defines lobbying as the transmission of expertise and knowledge into the decision-making process. There are many ways to carry out lobbying, including official and unofficial events, communications, drawing up memoranda and statements, as well as attending hearings, impact assessment processes and expert workgroups.
“According to my assessment, most EU lobbyists conduct their work in an appropriate manner. The damage to their reputations caused by misconduct is so considerable that not many are willing to take risks by acting unethically or against the law.”
No lobbying-free zones in politics
Korkea-aho believes decision-makers cannot possibly be fully versed in the fine detail of all political sectors, making them susceptible to information and influencing originating outside the decision-making process. Research indicates that members of the European Parliament in particular make use of the expertise offered by lobbyists.
“Non-governmental organisations are lobbyists as much as consultants are. Few people are opposed to decision-makers meeting with, for example, organisations that defend children’s rights. Whatever the party in question, increased interaction with external parties requires from decision-makers the ability to screen the deluge of information coming from outside,” Korkea-aho notes.
Korkea-aho believes that prejudices related to lobbying could be dispelled through regulations that promote openness.
“The European Commission and Parliament have a register of lobbyists known as the transparency register. It’s a public database where lobbyists themselves register details on their activities and where they commit to observing good lobbying practices. Information entered into the register includes basic information on the lobbyists, the clients they represent, the affairs promoted and the resources used for lobbying. Unlike in Ireland, for example, the EU register does not contain details on meetings and the decision-makers present at these meetings.
In spite of the voluntary nature of the register, nearly 12,000 lobbying parties have already registered.
Aiming for register expansion
Negotiations on expanding and specifying the EU lobbying register, going on for over two years already, have reached an impasse due to disagreements between institutions. Korkea-aho finds this regrettable.
“Regulating lobbying with a compulsory register extending to the European Council and EU agencies would undeniably be a step forward. It would increase citizens’ trust in decision-making and improve the image of lobbying. Furthermore, such a register would help decision-makers ensure that the lobbyists approaching them are adhering to jointly agreed rules.”
In Finland, the status of lobbying transparency received a boost when the Finnish parliament expressed its support for a lobbying register in February 2019. Additionally, an uproar concerning the participation of lobbyists in the talks to form the new government (article in Finnish only) resulted in the chairs of the parliamentary groups making a decision to include the lobbying register in the new government programme.
“Finland would become the first Nordic country to introduce a lobbying register. It’s interesting to see whether, for example, Sweden and Denmark follow suit and whether measures that promote openness in EU member states also increase the pressure on the EU level,” Korkea-aho ponders.