PA boss: New EU landscape requires ‘professional’ business groups

Alain Beaumont Drupal.jpg

Businesses require "much more professionalism" and "swifter answers" from their industry associations to deal with the complexity of today's EU institutional landscape, Alain Beaumont, founder of AGEP Association Management, told EURACTIV in an interview.

Alain Beaumont founded AGEP Association Management in 1989. In addition to heading AGEP, he is also secretary-general of the Union of European Beverages Associations (UNESDA), which represents the European non-alcoholic beverages industry in Brussels.

Sam Rowe is communications manager at AGEP and fulfils the same role at UNESDA.

They were speaking to EURACTIV's Andrew Williams.

To read a shortened version of this interview, please click here.

First of all, tell me a little bit about AGEP and what association management is.

Beaumont: I created AGEP in 1989, that's more than 20 years ago now. At the time the time the world of associations was very well-structured. It was very simple. They were the main interlocutors with the EU institutions. Companies were structured in associations: first of all in sectorial ones and then in wider associations. It was all very well organised.

Since that time the world has changed tremendously. The EU institutions have become very much more complex, and the issues that the EU institutions are dealing with are much more complex.

This means that the business world – because we are in fact business alliance associations, there are several types of association on the market and then there are NGOs, but we are talking here about business alliances, where companies come together in association format ­– the requirements of the business world and their requests to associations have increased tremendously.

Businesses require much more professionalism from their associations and also swifter answers. That's one aspect.

The second aspect is that the issues are more complex and the stakeholders vary. This means that when a business is confronted with European issues, it's not always the same stakeholders that are confronted with such issues.

So in order to bring those stakeholders together they need to create more and more associations. Instead of simplifying…some believe the world of EU representation is getting simpler, but that's not the case.

It's becoming more and more complicated. We as associations need to answer more professionally. That's also where demand for association management companies comes from.

How has AGEP had to change over the years? I would imagine that when you started there were only a few actors like yourselves in Brussels, but now there are a multitude of stakeholders.  

Beaumont: Yes. But the world has become more complex and there are many more associations on the Brussels scene than there used to be before. So association management companies usually have their specificities. We have ours: we are very much specialised in health and environment issues. We also specialise in the food industry. We are very strong there, but not only there.   

What kind of information do your clients want from you? What do you see as your main added value?

Beaumont: Our main added value is to bring business around the table and to manage those associations. What are the main characteristics of an association? They are of course fee-based. They don't sell anything, so they are fee-based.

We manage that membership and the needs of their members, and for that we need to be focused on one area. We, as an association that manages public affairs, have to be specialised and focused. We have the ability to bring experts who are able to do this.

What about how you communicate? How has your communication strategy changed since 1989?

In some ways it hasn't changed because we have our own characteristics as an association. An association has to build up its own credibility and trust, and it gains trust with the value of its message. Building trust and building long-term relationships is a medium to long-term exercise.       

When you do this, you enter into a dialogue. A dialogue works two ways: it's not only business giants or associations that request to be heard by the institutions and other stakeholders. Because they add value and have gained trust, the institutions and other stakeholders come to the associations, because they are sure to get answers to their questions.

Rowe: It's like anything, isn't it? You know you've got it right when the institution or the journalist calls you, rather than the other way around, and they recognise that you're the experts and that you will speak for the industry too. Because otherwise you've just got a set of disparate voices.

I was just going to get to that. Obviously sometimes giant multinational companies will communicate by themselves on certain issues.

Beaumont: Of course.

What difference is there between what they are communicating themselves and what you're doing?

Beaumont: The scope of the issues is very, very wide. There are direct corporate interests, which of course they need to answer. They need to show that they are dealing with those issues in their own way.

But they also need to answer collectively to the needs of society. How are they going to organise themselves in terms of self-regulation? Nowadays, more than we did in the past, we need to respond to public needs not only by regulation but by self-regulation.

There are issues that are much too complex to be addressed straight away in a regulatory manner. It needs to be self-regulatory, and that's also the way you build trust with stakeholders, the public and with the EU institutions.

Is it difficult to achieve consensus between all the different stakeholders?

Beaumont: Absolutely. This is precisely what companies and the business world require from association executives. They need association management companies to provide adequately trained people to build that consensus. It's a question of know-how.

Rowe: You have got a group of disparate companies and clearly they have their own commercial interests, which are very much in play: there are clear competition rules for associations.

But there are also other issues: for example, in the food industry, which AGEP deals with a lot, there are issues around recovery and recycling, which are industry issues, and we approach those as an industry. Labelling and nutrition are also industry issues and no one company would want to go out on a limb: it would want to make sure there was consensus among all of them as to how they approach those things.

Sometimes there will be disagreements, and then it's a case of working out what is the best way through. Very often you will say 'this is an industry position' but corporately people may have a slightly different position based on the portfolio of the company, but as an industry, this is the industry position. Everyone will buy into that.

Beaumont: Absolutely. There are two aspects which are essential in building consensus.

The first is that we are confronted with competition issues and anti-trust law, so we have to guarantee that the issues that we are dealing with follow and comply with anti-trust law. That's number one.

The second thing, which is very important for the businesses that you have around the table, is to guarantee their political independence. Even if you have several associations in one house, like an association management company does, the association management company has to offer the comfort and security upon which the association will build its own position, and [make clear that] the executive will promote those positions in a totally independent way: simply responding to the needs of the board and the associations.

These are the two essential features of consensus building.

With the Lisbon Treaty's entry into force, the way Brussels makes policies has changed. The European Parliament now has a lot more power, and most decisions are taken under the co-decision procedure. How is the post-Lisbon environment changing what you do?

Beaumont: The presence of associations in the Parliament is becoming more and more important. It is an essential feature. The Parliament has its own complexities and way of working. For instance, there are inter-parliamentary committees. It is essential for associations to be present and enter into a dialogue and to bring their expertise to the subjects that are dealt with by MEPs. This is an essential feature [of our work].

Rowe: Certainly for the associations I work with, even the MEPs themselves are used to seeing somebody from a corporation and then somebody wearing his association hat. They are used to both those things.

We do a lot in the Parliament, going into different committees just before something is about to come up or when something's on the agenda, explaining our position, and they may know that corporately – given that the portfolio is slightly different depending on the product concerned – that the positions might be different.

But MEPs seem to be able to understand these things. Businesses align around issues, and the Parliament recognises that, because the Parliament is increasingly dealing with issues rather than industries. There seems to be quite a nice synergy there, actually.

Beaumont: You're right to mention that it's been an evolutionary process for associations as well as businesses. In the past we essentially focused on the Commission, which is still valid, because that's the early process of when there's legislation at stake.

But Parliament has now become very important: and even before legislation is issued, and that makes it complex. Why? Because the Parliament has its agenda, which follows the legislative process.

It is essential for associations to build up their trust and credibility with the Parliament long before the legislative stage. And how does this happen? Through inter-parliamentary groups, in which they talk about the technicalities long before the legislation is issued or modified.

One thing that you could say about how policies are made in Brussels in the post-Lisbon Treaty era is that because the Parliament has to vote on many more issues than it did before, many decisions are being taken at first reading instead of second reading. The formulating of policy and the lobbying from different stakeholders is surely happening earlier.

Beaumont: Absolutely! 

Rowe: Take a specific issue in the European Parliament. As an association we go in with different people each time – because we manage the association and there are four or five people working on that. Depending on what it is or whether they want to see a technical person, then the person in charge of regulatory affairs within AGEP for the association will take a scientist in to meet the MEP, or a scientist to meet a scientist.

There are also different levels of people. So if it's an environmental issue, we'll take in the top environmental person from one of the member companies, who will represent the association. Because of course we're not just one person and we're not really experts. We're generalists, who understand what the environmentalist person needs, what the sustainability person need, what the person working on internal market issues needs, what the trade issues are: of course, whoever you actually bring in to talk about those issues is a completely different person but they are still representing the association.

It has actually got a lot more complicated for us. You can be there three or four times with different people in the same week.

Beaumont: As I explained before, it's not just the regulatory process but also the self-regulatory process. So when an association or sector creates that self-regulatory approach, they need not only to make the European institutions and the national institutions aware of that self-regulatory approach, but also of course the European Parliament.

It is important that the Parliament is informed in order to reduce their demands for a regulatory approach. We need to keep them confident that the industry is coping with concerns. It is no longer necessarily linked to a purely regulatory approach that fits precisely the agenda of MEPs. It goes outside of their agenda, and this requires an ability to build relationships, and of course in that associations have much more credibility with MEPs than one single company.

Rowe: Associations used to just sit there waiting to answer questions and be helpful, whereas now they are going out and setting the agenda, and saying to the MEPs, 'we hear you have concerns around marketing to children, for example. Well, we're undertaking to make these sorts of commitments to allay your fears and the fears of your voters upfront of any legislation'.

Moving on now to the transparency initiative launched in 2005 by Siim Kallas, and the lobby register, it seems like this is finally coming back on the agenda after having been put on the backburner for a while by the new European Commission. It seems like concrete plans to draw up are joint register between the Commission and the Parliament are finally taking shape. The so-called 'transparency register' might finally get off the ground. What's your view on this? 

Beaumont: First of all, there are two associations of European affairs people who deal with these transparency issues. On the one hand there's SEAP [the Society of European Affairs Professionals] and on the other hand there's EPACA [the European Public Affairs Consultancies Association]. We are members of both.

It is essential for an association to be entirely transparent about who they represent, in terms of membership and the way they are financed. It's essential. It's the ABC of building up credibility and trust. So we are entirely supportive of the initiative.

Are you in the register yourselves?

Beaumont: Excellent question. As a member of EPACA – SEAP is for individuals: some may work in association management, but they are individual members of SEAP – EPACA is for public affairs companies, and AGEP Association Management is a member of EPACA.

What EPACA and SEAP are doing is working with the EU institutions on the process. They would like their members to be in the register. AGEP Association Management does not represent itself vis-à-vis the institutions. It represents associations. So the individual associations, which are the clients of AGEP, are in the register.      

But not AGEP itself?

Beaumont: Not AGEP itself for the moment, but it might well be. AGEP doesn't represent itself. When I go to the Parliament, I don't represent AGEP. I represent one association.

Transparency campaigners have long complained that it is actually hard to follow who is in the register and who isn't, and who is representing who. Some groups are in the register but don't list their members.

Others list their members but offer not details of the relative strength of each: if the majority of the funding for an association comes from one particular company, then maybe that association spends most of its time lobbying on behalf of that company.

Transparency advocates have also complained that it's all very well having the names of individuals in the register, but that gives little indication of the types of issue they are lobbying on and on whose behalf.

Beaumont: For AGEP Association – and I'm sure also for the associations that we manage – they are all in favour of fully declaring who they represent and how they are financed individually. No problem. They are totally transparent. This is an essential part of being an association and gaining credibility and trust. It's number one.

Would you prefer the new transparency register to also include the Council?

Beaumont: Oh yes! But you know, the work we do with the Council, it's a bit more complicated. If you talk to the public affairs world, then access for them is more complicated.

For associations, this is an asset and strength – associations are not only based in Brussels. The ones that AGEP Association Management runs have members who are national organisations. It's a framework of associations and they work with local government.

Indirectly, we have an input through the Council to those structures. But working directly with the Council is a much more complex issue than working with the Commission and the Parliament.

Sports policy is an extremely new area of EU activity and the Commission has only just set out detailed policy proposals in this area. There are already a few stakeholders in Brussels, but really it's only just getting started and it's actually quite interesting to see how representation of different sports interests is being built.

Sometimes there is just one person in an office who picks up the phone to talk about sports issues. There are also NGOs. But it's difficult at the moment for smaller sports to have a voice in Brussels. There are lots of issues in the Commission communication that are key for small sports, like grassroots sports funding, but debate in Brussels is dominated by large players like UEFA, because they can afford to have large representation here.  You don't really hear the voice of small sports in Brussels. At the moment it is all about TV rights and regulating players' agents, because this is what the football world is worried about. The rest of the debate hasn't really got started.

Do you see a role for yourself in giving stakeholders in the world of sport and other new policy areas introduced by the Lisbon Treaty a voice in Brussels?

Beaumont: There are two main aspects to this. Firstly, sports are used to the association structure. They are very much structured in associations themselves, so they are more likely than others to be inclined to form associations in Brussels to help them cope with the EU agenda and intervene on the EU stage. Of course, AGEP Association Management will be ready to look into this more attentively as you suggest.

Secondly, I fully agree with you that sport is not present enough in Brussels. I'm sure others will say more than I can, but sport for me has an educational aspect, and the responsibility of the sports business is one of information and informing the consumer.

Sport is also about educating the consumer that they should do sports. We would be delighted, not only from the business point of view to help sport to structure itself, but there is also a demand and a need for their presence in Brussels, and they need to exploit that.    

Are there any final comments that you'd like to make?

Beaumont: Associations are now working proactively on the EU agenda. The reason for this is that businesses are confronted with a series of public issues, coming from the press, etc., and they need to be upfront of all legislation and take a proactive approach.

This is very much stakeholder by stakeholder. They need to be together in their values and in a flexible form. Association structures help them to do that, and this is the contribution that association management companies can bring.

You must have noticed an evolution since the new member states joined the EU. Is there a big difference between associations in the new countries and those in the 'old' ones?

Beaumont: You know, AGEP Association Management has been dealing with associations there since the early 1990s. In the early nineties I was travelling in the Visegrad countries, Hungary and Poland, trying to bring all these associations closer together.

In the beginning we had so-called 'accession committees', but now these things have totally disappeared. They are totally incorporated into the structure of an association like any other.

Of course, with some countries there is a different speed at which they broaden the scope of the association. But most of the associations that we run are totally integrated with the new countries and they work just like any other.

Rowe: In a way they have more of the issues because they're into the transposition of things. And they are not afraid to come forward. I'll always remember in 2003 when they first had observers in the Parliament, when the Poles and the Hungarians etc. were allowed in the Parliament but they weren't elected yet, not until 2004.

The Estonians and the Czechs were just sitting there nicely but the Poles were coming up to the Germans and saying 'can you table these amendments for us?' So the new member states are very focused.    

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