How the EU institutions work and how to work with the EU institutions

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

It is more necessary than ever for private and public organisations to understand how to work with European institutions, argues Alan Hardacre. Though EU policymaking can be complex and difficult, he says that preaching this understanding need not be the monopoly of professional lobbies and consultancies.

Alan Hardacre is a lecturer at the European Institute of Public Administration (EIPA) and a former senior policy adviser to the Confederation of British Industry.

"Any stakeholder trying to pursue public policy goals in the EU, or that involve the EU, is obliged to engage with the Brussels-based institutions in some way. The EU is responsible for a significant percentage of the legislation its member states implement in certain areas: legislation that impacts not only the member states themselves, but also the rest of the world.

The transition from needing to interact with the EU institutions to doing so successfully, however, is not such an easy one. This is especially the case with recent changes brought about by the Treaty of Lisbon, the evolving intra and inter-institutional dynamics and personalities, and the ballooning debate about transparency and ethics in the Brussels lobbying environment.

All of this has already been highlighted in 2011 through the first major lobbying campaigns on delegated acts, intense work with the Parliament on its powers of consent on international agreements and the recent cash for amendments scandal in the Parliament that hit the headlines.

So, as the importance of engaging with the EU institutions increases, so too does the complexity and difficulty of doing so effectively. Although there is obviously no secret formula for successful engagement, a solid understanding of the idiosyncratic institutional and decision-making architecture is fundamental to any attempt to work with the EU.

While this alone is no guarantee of success, it is an essential prerequisite for any successful engagement. On the other hand, a failure to understand the process, the timelines, who takes decisions, what your interlocutor needs or how the system works will almost certainly lead to failure or missed opportunities.

This combination of necessity and complexity has led to a burgeoning public affairs (lobbying) industry in Brussels offering services to guide you through the maze of decision-making procedures, civil servants, politicians and other key influencers who need to be engaged with.

Outside of the consultancy world a number of attempts to explain how things work in Brussels have been made – but (rather curiously) not many attempts have been made to explain how to work with Brussels.

I, like many people who came to work in Brussels, had to learn how things operated by reading on the job, keeping up with the press and simply working it out as I went along, with friends and contacts being my main source of help. Whilst this can be very successful over the long term it is far from optimal, especially if you are only in Brussels for a short stay, or do not have an immediate network to call on.

The short-term nature of issues, the high turnover of staff in Brussels and the growing importance of the issues that the EU deals with all mean that long learning curves are becoming a luxury of the past.

Getting a quicker and deeper grasp of the essentials has never been something easy to do – which is why I decided to try and bridge this gap by writing a practical book on 'How the EU Institutions Work…and How to Work with the EU Institutions'.

For example, an essential ability is to identify the right people at the right stages of the internal and inter-institutional decision-making procedures – and to know what these people need to make their jobs easier and more efficient. In Brussels the ability to speak to the right person at the right time – and to know what they want/have or need is a major advantage. 

Working with the EU institutions is an ever-evolving process, because the institutions and the people in them change, the mixture of stakeholders working on issues changes, the public affairs industry is getting more sophisticated and professional and because lobbying can change due to business and political needs. 

Trying to successfully engage with with the EU institutions is essentially becoming an ever more competitive and professional environment, where the need to have a clear understanding of the system, and how to work with it, is paramount.

Even if there is no magic recipe for success the realm of successfully working with the EU institutions does not have to be reserved for professional consultancies – everyone can improve their knowledge of the institutions and how to work with them." 

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