Developing and regulating lobbying in the new EU countries

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

“Lobbying is still in its infancy” in the ten newest EU member states, but the practice is continually developing as civil society actors recognise the value of participation in the political process, argues Conor McGrath, an independent Dublin-based scholar, in a paper published in the Journal of Public Affairs.

His paper explains how the transition from communism to democracy generally led to an increase in the number of interest groups in central and eastern European countries, which continued during preparations for EU membership. But more academic work needs to be done on the development of lobbying in the new EU states, believes the author.

According to McGrath, the legacy of communism initially ensured that civil society remained relatively weak, with limited capacity to influence policymaking in the wake of democratisation. But he detects gradual change as more interest groups become established and contribute to the political process.

However, a culture of corruption dating from the communist period still persists in many of these countries, which obviously affects lobbying, McGrath claims. He points to a 1999 survey which found that lobbying and corruption were “clearly related,” although firms in more corrupt countries were less likely to engage in lobbying.

The arrival of democracy meant business associations were established, allowing smaller businesses to combine to promote their interests in an attempt to overcome bureaucratic obstacles and the dominance of large state-owned monopolies, says McGrath. However, he adds that lobbying remains less accepted and understood in the new EU member states than in their older counterparts, while many associations are not well developed, despite increasing awareness of the importance of lobbying.

Regarding lobbying regulation, the new member states are more advanced than the EU 15, the paper argues, pointing out that Lithuania and Poland enforce lobbying laws whereas the older members rely on self-regulation.

As more lobbying is bound to trigger the regulation debate, McGrath recommends that lobbyists in the new EU countries recognise the need for transparency and disclosure of their practices and unite in professional associations. This would combat popular suspicion and offer effective representation for the whole industry by virtue of wide membership bases and organisational resources, he concludes.

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