Coalitions and their influence on EU decision-making

Coalition building – or the art of setting up alliances to influence policy outcomes – has long been dominated in Brussels by trade associations representing a specific business or industrial sector. These traditional types of coalitions are generally well respected by EU institutions because of the legitimacy they gain from the volume of members they represent – whether individual companies or national trade associations. However, today, these long-established coalitions are being challenged by smaller ones led by a handful of companies who decide to break away from the pack. Inspired by NGO tactics, these often short-term and ad hoc coalitions tend to engage in a more aggressive, single-issue type of lobbying oriented almost exclusively on communication campaigns.

EU institutions - and the Commission in particular - have welcomed input by industry experts since the early days of European integration. This is mainly due to endemic staff shortages at the Commission whose size is similar to that of a medium-size city administration (often compared to the Rotterdam city council).

According to Prof. Justin Greenwood (Aberdeen Business School, and College of Europe), the fragmentation of power in the EU decision-making system between member states and EU institutions guarantees that no single type of interest can routinely dominate, meaning EU politics is based around compromise and consensus.

Greenwood underlines that, in the absence of an EU 'government' with an inbuilt majority, every dossier has to find its own majority, meaning that alliances are key. In addition, EU policy-making increasingly tends to be based on evidence and science, favouring those able to supply robust facts to support their policy position. Brussels lobbying tactics therefore generally seek to build a broad consensus to influence a wide variety of politicians on a particular outcome.

For these reasons, business or trade associations have tended to dominate the Brussels lobbying scene for decades. They are viewed as highly legitimate information providers by EU officials who appreciate being presented with coherent industry positions which enjoy the support of a large number of interests in a given sector.

European trade associations mainly draw their strength from their ability to reach common positions. However, reaching a common position often entails finding a 'lowest common denominator' between many different countries and interests. The process is well-known for being slow and leading to an end result which is not always satisfactory.

An increasing number of businesses are therefore turning to more flexible types of coalitions set up to secure specific goals that do not find support from everyone within the organisation. These are typically issue-specific coalitions geared towards external communications. In most cases, they dissolve after they meet their objective or when the issue is no longer on the political agenda.

"Strategic alliances have a clear function to capture the attention of the public and politicians on a chosen subject. They act externally, not internally," says Miriam Stegherr from Politik & Kommunikation, a German Public Affairs magazine. In addition, she says, alliances tend to be organised via external agencies which makes them more neutral and keeps their structure more flexible. Single-issue coalitions may be established:

  • between a number of private companies e.g.: 
    • the Objection campaign driven by German SMEs against the REACH regulation on chemicals
    • the alliance between Danone, Kellogg's, Kraft, Nestle and PepsiCo in the UK to go their own way on displaying nutritional content on food products
  • between companies and NGOs. e.g.:  

Conversely, individual organisations may wish to set up an alliance to acquire more weight on issues of common interest. These may also take the form of issue-specific coalitions (e.g.: the alliance of airline and aerospace industry associations on reducing greenhouse gas emissions from the aviation sector).

The 1990s saw a major development in coalition building with the emergence of NGOs. They have proved extremely efficient at single-issue lobbying (e.g.: the Greenpeace anti-nuclear campaign) and at setting up broad coalitions. Examples in Brussels include:

  • NGO coalitions, e.g.: 

  • Alliances of existing associations who unite to defend a common position on a given issue. e.g.:
    • the EU Civil Society Contact Group which brings together under a single umbrella existing NGO networks in seven sectors - environment, social, development, women, culture, human rights and public health 

Other types of coalitions include what Brussels public affairs veteran, Daniel Guéguen, calls 'galaxy coalitions'. These, he says, involve the regrouping of related associations under a single umbrella, for example: 

  • the "chemicals galaxy" with CEFIC and its myriad of member associations representing all the segments of the chemical sector 
  • the "food galaxy" comprised of the EU Confederation of food and drink industries (CIAA) and its "satellites": EDA (dairy), CEFS (sugar), Brewers of Europe (beer)

Kellen Europe, an association management company based in Brussels, says the benefits of the coalition building exercise are "to combine forces and strengths, share common messages, maximise problem solving and issue management and to increase representativity". In addition to this, Kellen says single-issue coalitions can also provide a stepping stone to relevant full-size associations.

It cites as an example a coalition it put in place in 1995 on behalf of global freight forwarders and logistics companies to persuade EU institutions to review existing legislation and procedures regarding the 'transit regime' for customs purposes. "Until 1998 the coalition was a 'single-issue organisation', says Alfons Westgeest, Managing Partner at Kellen Europe. "But thereafter the coalition members agreed to continue the cooperation under the same umbrella on other issues of common interest to all members: issues such as airfreight, ocean and overland transport, and environment related topics". More recently, the association's scope of activities expanded beyond the EU to acquire an international dimension with operations also in Asia. Today, Westgeest says the association is recognised by governmental bodies and other industry organisations as "a credible and representative voice for the freight forwarding industry on an international level".

Other public affairs professionals argue that the emergence of civil society organisations such as environmental NGOs makes the traditional model of coalitions based on trade associations outdated. In an analysis paper contributed to EURACTIV, Daniel Guéguen, CEO of CLAN Public Affairs, says the EU's enlargement to 25 countries de facto undermines these traditional coalitions. "The deepening gap between the 25 member states inevitably leads to weak, inefficient and vague consensus," he argues.

According to Guéguen, the number and scope of interests represented is not sufficient anymore to win the support of EU decision-makers. More important to him is credibility. In his view, 'horizontal coalitions' which bring together producers, consumers and environmentalists across the whole spectrum of a product's value chain is what will characterise "the lobbying of tomorrow". 

"Horizontal coalitions symbolise the pro-active lobbying that European institutions expect from businesses and industry. To facilitate the emergence of a pre-negotiated solution rather than opposing the process or slowing it down: such is the rule today in influence-peddling," says Guéguen. "But let us be clear", he warns: "No coalition without leadership: Or, to say it more bluntly: yes to a coalition provided that you are the initiator, the architect and the leader!"

  • EURACTIV welcomes reactions or contributions on this subject. Please submit hypertext links, analyses, studies, essays or position papers to: Contributions are subject to republication unless stated otherwise by the sender.

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