Businesses require "much more professionalism" and "swifter answers" from their industry associations to deal with the complexity of today’s EU institutional landscape, according to Alain Beaumont, founder of AGEP Association Management.
The EU institutions and the issues they are dealing with have become much more complex since the entry into force of the Lisbon Treaty, which has seen the European Parliament in particular take on a greater role in EU policymaking, explained Beaumont, who is also secretary-general of the Union of European Beverages Associations (UNESDA).
"This means that […] the requirements of the business world and their requests to associations have increased tremendously," he told EURACTIV in an interview.
Growing importance of Parliament
"The presence of associations in the Parliament is becoming more and more important. It is essential for associations to […] enter into a dialogue and to bring their expertise to the subjects that are dealt with by MEPs," he said.
His colleague Sam Rowe, communications manager at AGEP and UNESDA, went further, explaining that members of the European Parliament are now used to seeing somebody from a corporation and then somebody representing an association.
"Businesses align around issues, and the Parliament recognises that, because the Parliament is increasingly dealing with issues rather than industries," Rowe said.
Both experts agreed the growing importance of the EU assembly upstream of legislation meant that it was essential for associations to build up trust and credibility long before the legislative process had begun.
Last year, industry bosses were told that industry federations face a "paradigm shift" in EU policymaking, with business associations having to deal with increased competition from individual companies in influencing the EU policymaking process.
"Associations will always be a privileged partner for the Commission, but we see them as defenders of existing interests," Kurt Vandenberghe, head of cabinet for Environment Commissioner Janez Poto?nik, told the tenth annual Euroconference.
"We're looking for actors who will create the interests of the future," Vandenberghe said. "Companies are much more prepared for this than associations. The Commission will be ready to proceed with individual companies that are receptive to its agenda. It won't wait for associations," Vandenberghe warned last May.
EU policymaking ‘more complex’ under Lisbon Treaty
Delivering a similar message, Beaumont stressed the importance for associations of keeping abreast of the EU policymaking process and making sure that they can provide companies with quick answers and timely advice.
"Businesses require much more professionalism from their associations and also swifter answers. That’s one aspect," Beaumont said.
"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 them, he added.
"To bring those stakeholders together they need to create more and more associations […] Some believe the world of EU representation is getting simpler, but that’s not the case. It’s becoming more and more complicated," Beaumont argued.
"We as associations need to answer more professionally. That’s also where demand for association management companies comes from," he said, explaining that "our main added value is to bring business around the table".
Long-term trust and credibility crucial
Beaumont said building up credibility and trust among actors in the Brussels policymaking arena was the key to establishing fruitful long-term relationships between stakeholders.
"A dialogue works two ways: it’s not only business giants or associations that request to be heard by the [EU] 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," said Beaumont.
Despite policy differences between companies in terms of their direct corporate interests, which they need to deal with as they see fit, firms "also need to answer collectively to the needs of society," which is where industry associations come in.
Indeed, businesses "need association management companies to provide adequately trained people to build that consensus," Beaumont explained.
His colleague Rowe went further. "You have got a group of disparate companies and clearly they have their own commercial interests," she said, but there are also industry-wide issues on which "no one company would want to go out on a limb: it would want to make sure there was consensus among all of them".
"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," Rowe said.
Both experts stressed the importance of building up long-term relationships with the European Parliament to reduce the risk of encumbering business with regulatory hurdles.
"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 industry is coping with concerns," said Beaumont.
"This requires an ability to build relationships, and of course in that associations have much more credibility with MEPs than one single company," he added.
Rowe agreed that industry representatives were becoming much more proactive in their relations with the EU assembly. "Associations used to just sit there waiting to answer questions and be helpful, whereas now they are going out and setting the agenda," she said, in an attempt to allay the fears of MEPs and voters "upfront of any legislation".
Another way in which the EU public affairs arena is evolving is the growing influence of associations from Central and Eastern European countries.
"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," Rowe said.