What the 2014 elections will mean for EU public affairs professionals

  
Disclaimer: all opinions in this column reflect the views of their authors’, not of EurActiv.com PLC.

All eyes are on the EU institutions this year given the upcoming European Parliament elections and the subsequent change of top officials. But the stream of analyses and conferences fail to address a vital question: what will these changes mean for the business community, NGOs and the wider public affairs world, András Baneth writes.

András Baneth is the managing director of the Public Affairs Council’s (www.pac.org) European office.

There seems to be quite a consensus about the direction towards which the elections are going. Analysts all seem to agree that populists, eurosceptics and fringe parties are likely to gain an alarmingly high number of seats. The Economist recently ran a cover page story "Europe's Tea Parties", all the while underlining how Marine Le Pen's views on the free market economy (or the lack thereof) are different from UKIP's stance on the same matter.

Whatever the outcome of the European Parliament elections, it seems likely that the new European Parliament will have far more MEPs who are sceptical of the internal market and its "four freedoms", or in other words, the positive values and the contribution that businesses like IBM, Bayer, Philips or Lego bring to European citizens and the economy.

At the same time, the new EP will likely be more fragmented than the current one, which may lead to a certain paralysis in brokering a majority for certain European Commission proposals that cover "sensitive" policies like the environment, food safety or financial services. This might be good news for those companies that are either satisfied or at best neutral about the current legislation in force, and would therefore benefit from the lack of new regulatory burdens on them.

When it comes to the EU-US free trade talks, however, this is probably very bad news: doubts over the benefits of this potentially historic agreement are mounting. The business community, along with trade associations and supportive NGOs will need to speak up stronger and louder to dispel doubts over the lowering of health and environment standards, reassure the broader public about the issue of GMOs, investor state dispute settlement procedures and to put the free trade agreement’s massive number of benefits in true perspective.

Innovative, progressive and somewhat 'federalist' stakeholders, the ones who want and need a more unified European market, may need to talk to more new MEPs who are outright hostile to their cause. In practice, this will require more compromises, improved political communication skills, a better understanding of "what's in it for them", and, not least, an in-depth knowledge of the formal and informal working mechanics of the new Parliament.

The new European Commission, given its sheer size of 28 commissioners, will be characterized by the process that had already started a few years ago: technical rule-making, both via implementing and delegated acts. This process is going to become ever more important; public affairs professionals need to maintain (or develop) their professional network with Commission officials even on lower levels of the hierarchy since a fuel efficiency standard or the approval of a food additive will not be decided by the Commissioner directly.

Finally, public affairs professionals need to adapt well to the "public mood" in their broader external environment, that is to say the EU member states in which they operate. This has a very positive side to it, too: governments are eager to attract new investment, which enables public affairs professionals to be revenue generators within their companies. Improving public perceptions will become more important and can pay off: surveys show that when the public trusts your industry more, policy makers will have less pressure and intention to impose more regulations on your business.

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