Interest groups are the natural constituency of the European Commission because they can be partners in the quest for more integration, and bring it information, ideas and support. The links which private and public interests have in the member states provide a channel through which irresistible demands can be brought to the door of national governments and popularised among EU citizens. For these reasons, the Commission spends something of the order of 1,000 million each year in funding NGOs, helping to kick-start many of them into life.
The role of the Commission in drafting legislation and its need for technical assistance in doing so, makes it a place where interest groups, firms and the like can be influential. Seeds of ideas planted by 'lobbyists' at an early stage can ripen into favourably drafted initiatives, particularly where no-one else has the technical knowledge to claim a stake.
Whilst these factors generally favour business, others get a look in where their interests co-incide with those of the Commission. Environmental organisations have, between them, over 80 people working in Brussels alone, as well as countless others in their world-wide networks. Historically, they have enjoyed a 'revolving door' relationship with DG Environment. Something similar is also true of the relationship between DG Employment and Social Affairs, the European Women's Lobby and the European Trade Union Confederation.
Even if a cosy deal has been done at Commission level, a basic issue for all interests remains. How does the deal survive through the other EU policy making institutions? By the time the Parliament and the Council of Ministers has finished with a measure it can look quite different from the one that left the Commission. The Takeover Directive and first Bio-Patenting directives are good examples of how measures can fall altogether. Parliament, in particular, has frequently demonstrated the strength of its relationship with NGOs.
This fragmentation in the EU policy making architecture can be used to insulate itself from pressure by pointing to the need to find a draft which will pass muster with the other policy making institutions (Grande, 1996). The result is that no one interest can routinely dominate EU policy making.
Because different parts of policy making institutions each have their own 'interest constituencies,' so there is a proliferation of 'lobbyists'. And because contact with outside interests is the lifeblood of otherwise remote EU institutions, they welcome all-comers - including members of interest groups who have lost the battle inside their own group. The result is not only that no one interest gets to monopolise EU policy making, but also that there is a landscape of competition. These factors result in a healthy scenario for democracy, but the downside is that the sheer number of lobbyists threatens to paralyse EU decision making.
Because the fragmented EU decision making system prevents the designation of interest groups as sole policy partners - typical of policy making in the Germanic countries - so business associations have to find their strength from other sources. Most turn to micro specialism as a source of cohesion - such as the 6 specialist associations in the glass industry - but the overall effect is lots of competing associations. This particularly plagues business organisation across the product chain, with the overall effect that its voice in EU policy making is diluted.
Another factor that restricts the strength of business is the limited resource base on which most EU trade associations operate. Most represent either national associations, and/or large firms - neither of whom wants the extended range of business services which national trade associations provide. These members instead want political representation, and almost all EU associat ions are geared solely to this task. This means that they have a greater dependence upon membership subscriptions than do national associations, and lack their own independent resource streams. Typically, this results in associations running on a shoestring budget, with some no more than virtual organisations.
Anti-business activists complaining of mega sized corporate political representation organisations probably haven't been to Brussels to see the picture for themselves. Were they do to so, they might also take in a visit to the outreach Brussels policy offices of the World Wide fund for Nature, or the European Women's Lobby, or the European Youth Forum, each with over 20 staff. Some of these networks can call on substantial member resources and expertise to engage EU policy making, and are well patronised with EU funding.
Funding issues for EU interest groups raise two types of problems. In business associations it leads to an over dependence on members, and over control by them. On short leads, many are mouthpieces for the short-term demands of their members, rather than having the autonomy to lead their members' perceptions of what their interests are on given issues. They can become dominated by their members need to prevent them from taking up positions damaging to any one member. For NGOs, Commission funding brings with it the danger of a loss of independence, and the tendency to become isolated from their members as Brussels based organisations focus exclusively on Brussels based politics.
Demonstrations in Brussels are rare because of the costs of mobilising transnational protest. Brussels politics is elite, institutional politics, and NGOs are geared up to playing the institutional games of Brussels. Recent research by Warleigh (2001) suggests that few perform the role of EU socialisation in the member states, and, alarmingly, that few have an interest in engaging their members about issues in EU politics. This undermines one of the principal reasons for the Commission in working with NGOs, resulting in a series of recent initiatives designed either to engage with European citizens direct, or to enhance democracy in NGOs. The White Paper on Governance and its aftermath provides a distinct offer on the table for NGOs: in exchange for more transparency, accountability, and representativity on their part comes an offer for greater participation in EU policy making.
There is much for NGOs to participate in. The EU agenda has come to be dominated by concerns with its popular legitimacy, and hence a scramble to create a 'Europe of the Citizens.' In some dossiers, citizens groups have joined with the politically astute DG Employment and Social Affairs to design measures which member states find politically impossible to resist. In a few cases, national networks have carried the message to member state governments, and in this way the European Women's Lobby was able to claim the credit for the extension of equality provisions in the Treaty of Amsterdam (Helferrich & Kolb, 2001).
These examples of interests teaming up with EU institutions to extend EU competencies are more frequently to be found today in public interest fields. In the days of the creation of the single market it was easier for business to do this because wealth creation issues dominated the EU agenda. But even then, the classic story of the role of the European Round Table of Industrialists has probably been overdone. Doubtless it did sit alongside Delors at press conferences and lend support to the single market programme, and make veiled threats as to what might happen if the Single European Act was not passed. But it is likely that member states would have done it anyway, and for this reason Delors chose the project as one likely to achieve success during his period of office.
Public and private interests can help explain the course of everyday EU policy making, particular in technical policy domains. But in wider publ ic arenas, such as monetary union, they are and can be no more than background influences. And in fields of integration - defined as the extension of EU competencies and the popularisation of the EU in the member states - their record is somewhat limited.
Grande, E (1996) 'The State and Interest Groups in a Framework of Multi-Level Decision Making: the case of the European Union', Journal of European Public Policy, 3: 3, September, pp 318-38.
Helferrich, B. and Kolb, F. (2000) 'Multilevel Action Coordination in European Contentious Politics: The case of the European Women's Lobby', in D Imig and S Tarrow (eds.) Contentious Europeans: Protest and Politics in an Integrating Europe (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield), pp 143-162.
Warleigh, A. (2001) 'Europeanizing Civil Society: NGOs as Agents of Political Socialization', Journal of Common Market Studies, November, 39, 4, pp 619-639.