EU lobbying from a new EU member state perspective

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

While the new member states' generally small stature, relative poverty and inexperience limit their influence in the European Union, they are fast learning the game of Brussels lobbying, argues Gergana Passy.

This commentary was sent exclusively to EURACTIV by Gergana Passy. She is the former Minister of European Union Affairs of Bulgaria.

"One would expect that the most difficult exercise for a country is to get into the EU. But fulfilling EU demands after joining is at least as challenging as getting into the club. Also, the New Member States (NMS) try to stay true to their transatlantic bonds while at the same time supporting a strong ESDP, without any duplication with NATO activities.

That said, the NMS would prefer to have a moderate modification of the CAP, the maintenance of cohesion objectives and instruments, a stronger cooperation in terms of energy policy, a full liberalisation of all four freedoms on the internal market, solidarity in regards to external border control, simplification of the rules of the budget on the revenue side and some streamlining on the expenditure side without altering the present ceiling. In addition, the newcomers are interested in more diversified energy sources and a better-coordinated energy policy at the EU level.

Influencing EU decisions by mostly small and medium-sized, new and poorer member states is not easy. Exercising an impact on EU developments has been a real challenge for the NMS, which seem to be decision takers, not decision makers, in the majority of the cases.

In some rare instances they became agenda setters (e.g. Hungary with minority rights or Poland with the Eastern Partnership), while in some other rare cases again they acted as decision blockers (e.g. Slovenia during Croatian accession negotiations or the Czech Republic with the Lisbon Treaty).

The NMS are also progressively learning how to become inventive decision shapers. They are expressing their interests, with a view to shape the outcome of negotiations, when they fear losing some rights and benefits (CAP, cohesion policy) or when they feel overburdened by EU requirements like border control, agricultural cross-compliance, bureaucratic rules linked to cohesion policy, or fast cuts of greenhouse gases when the domestic industry is dependent on fossil energy sources.

Analysing the lobbying interests of one of the newest EU member states gives a more detailed idea of the matter. Bulgaria, as a young and small EU member state has limited powers to enforce its interests and to tangibly influence EU decisions.

In this situation, Bulgaria logically seeks to use the EU leverage for achieving results in the fields regarded to be of key importance. These fields encompass energy and climate, the future of the EU budget with special focus on the CAP and structural/cohesion policy, ENP and enlargement, the internal market and institutional issues.

In some of these fields, the country shows a high activity, the most visible case being energy and climate, and takes in some cases positions that are diverging from the mainstream EU ones.

In other fields such as institutional issues, the country's activity has been rather limited. With a lot of issues, Bulgaria tries to find rational partners in order to be part of a coalition that has a chance to represent the coalition partners' common interests.

Big partners are definitely a must for successful coalitions; based on the experiences since the country's EU accession, it looks like Germany is the 'favourite' big partner. A specific partnership seems to be operating with Romania on the basis of a number of common interests – similar geographic location, Schengen perspective as well as some pending issues in Justice and Home Affairs.

When it comes to purely political matters, the Bulgarian government – like all other EU member states – mainly relies on its own functionaries to present and defend the national interests. One very important tool for each government is the permanent representation in Brussels, which fulfils several key functions:

–        Gathering intelligence about future EU policy developments and the progress of existing proposals and assisting Bulgarian ministers and officials to influence the policy formulation;

–        Close cooperation with a wide range of individuals, organisations and bodies representing Bulgarian interests (Bulgarian companies and NGOs, Bulgarian MEPs, Bulgarian members of the Committee of the Regions and the Economic and Social Committee);

–        Practical support for Bulgarian ministers and officials visiting Brussels;

–        Developing and strengthening regional networks through involvement with the Committee of the Regions and through contacts with other regions represented in Brussels

–        Promoting Bulgaria in Brussels and contribute to current policy debates through conferences, events, cultural activities and receptions.

Under Lisbon, the co-decision procedure has been expanded and the EP can now veto Council legislation in fields such as energy policy and agriculture. As a rather small country with only 10 votes, Bulgaria is seldom the agenda setter and generally has to join larger coalitions in order to be part of the winning side.

The Council is an intergovernmental institution and as such is dominated by national interests; winning coalitions emerge after a consensus has been reached. Smaller countries here usually have to make greater compromises or they will be easily outvoted.

The European Parliament then becomes the last sheet anchor, since MEPs do not normally fight tooth and nail for their national interest. Compared to the Council, where each delegation receives strict orders from their respective capitals, discussions and negotiations in the European Parliament are more relaxed and the outcome is far less predictable.

The NMS have not (yet) the same connections as the older EU countries and are (still) relatively new to the lobbying game. It is therefore no surprise that the practice of lobbying is less well developed there. But the NMS are catching up fast."

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