“How to get the best out of your lobbyist!”

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

In an open letter to new MEPs, Tom Spencer from the European
Centre for Public Affairs (ECPA), says lobbyists “are the ideal
companions for your down moments”!

An open letter to new MEPs

Dear Colleagues, Congratulations! You have done the difficult
bits – getting elected and surviving your first Strasbourg Plenary
– now for the next five years. Get the basics right first. Find
comfortable accommodation in Brussels and some way of making sure
that you don’t over-sleep and miss those important moments at the
beginning of Committees. A good parliamentary assistant is
essential. Buy or steal one with experience of how Parliament
works. Invest time in understanding how the parliamentary expenses
system works. Do this not for the sake of your bank balance, but
because it will be the first subject which every journalist asks
you about. Don’t worry about inevitable mistakes. Keep smiling.
Indeed, keep smiling at everybody until you sort out the difference
between that blonde Spaniard and the dark Swede with the
confusingly similar names. Don’t worry about any damage you inflict
on the English or French languages. EU “Corridor Franglais” is your
language – use it, invent it, enjoy it! 

Happily you are not alone in this strange new world. There are
hundreds of lobbyists keen to help. If they are any good they are
already programmed to feel your pain, understand your problems and
provide you with a tailor-made set of views that will ensure your
effortless rise to the pinnacle of parliamentary power. These
helpful people will offer you cocktails. They will make you feel
both grand and guilty. They may frighten the pants off you, but
they also promise a tantalising whiff of celebrity to help fuel
your career. 

All they want in return is that you take an interest in their
ideas. They are traders in the most important commodity in the
European Union – information. Although they are often too shy and
self-effacing to say so, they are fulfilling an important part of
the democratic process. Most of them have big, round soulful eyes,
like puppies. All of them have agendas. Indeed they are best
thought of as pets – helpful, loving, the ideal companions for your
down moments. Medical evidence shows a sharp reduction in
stress-related diseases amongst politicians when they have the
opportunity to stroke and be stroked by lobbyists. Like all good
pets they are best kept in small numbers and in good conditions
where they can come to understand your needs and wishes.
Occasionally un-house trained lobbyists get into the system and
leave a nasty smell. The number of Italian chocolate companies with
gangland manners is thankfully small, so you should be able to
choose a comfortable collection of pet lobbyists. Start with a
couple of Irish Wolfhounds for hunting, a farm cat to keep the mice
down, an iguana for interest and a brace of parrots to repeat your
words of wisdom. 

Remember lobbyists come in different guises. Corporate lobbyists
are worried about jobs in your area. Non-governmental organisations
are worried about your eternal soul. National governments are
simply worried that you may discover the weakness of their case
when you have seen twenty-four other governments making the same
mistake. Then there are voices from your political party reminding
you of future selection procedures and the desirability following
every word of your Manifesto, however ignorant or badly
drafted.

To survive all this attention from public affairs puppies you
need some clear rules for your own conduct.

Be selective. You cannot take up every cause. You cannot follow
every amendment in a four-hour voting session. Get used to
depending on your colleagues who write the whips in subjects you
know nothing about. Divide issues into those you can ignore; those
where you need enough knowledge to survive; and those where you
want enough knowledge to change policy yourself.

Audit your own interests. What do you really care about? Seek
out the more influential parliamentary Inter-Groups, because they
set agendas and influence voting outcomes. Care about the
environment? Go for GLOBE (Global Legislators Organisation for a
Balanced Environment). Want to reform the CAP? Go for LUFPIG (Land
Use and Food Policy Inter Group).

Consider your parliamentary career in the round. Do you wish to
shine in your Committee, in your Delegation, in your political
Group or in the Plenary? There will be lobbyists keen to help you
in all settings.

It is generally wise to start by building a few lasting
relationships with lobbyists who share your interests and whose
company you enjoy. Beware the exotic, the exuberant or the overly
generous. As a general rule you should be suspicious of the
lobbyist you first meet when he abseils through your parliamentary
window. Similarly it may be wise to avoid the lobbyist who
introduces himself while breathlessly waving an invitation to speak
in Cape Town during springtime.

Bear in mind that the lobbyist you are talking to is the smile
on the face of a very extensive tiger, much of which may not be
visible to you. The civil servant on the telephone from your
national capital will have spent months negotiating in Council and
knows exactly what he wants Parliament to do. The delightful
diplomat offering to share a kebab on behalf of his applicant
nation may well be experienced at skewering previous
parliamentarians. The innocent civil society activist is talking
from a script that may well have had to be agreed at national,
European and global level. The company representative will already
have made her case to Commission and Council and may well be a
veteran of internecine warfare in trade associations or employers’
groups. This lobbying is just the tip of the public affairs
iceberg. It represents the conclusion of months or years of
research, coalition building and strategy formulation.

This autumn will see the resumption of the three very different
public affairs campaigns, all of which will be deploying lobbyists
with big brown eyes. The titanic struggle over the REACH Directive
goes into its second round. My advice would be to let WWF measure
your chemical content. It may not decide your vote on the issue,
but it’s just the story for the local newspaper. Colleagues with an
alcohol problem may wish to pass this one, unless they have major
wine or whisky interests in their region! Governments of all kinds
are the most numerous lobbyists of Parliament, so expect to be
heavily lobbied by the Turks. Parliament has the power of Assent on
new members so don’t give this one away lightly. Undoubtedly the
most complex lobbying of the season will come with the
Constitutional Treaty. This is a process in which you also get to
play lobbyist. Nobody understands the whole document, so my advice
would be to become a specialist in particular sections of the
Treaty. Article numbers should trip from your tongue. The really
ambitious may also indulge themselves with Protocols. But remember
this is an issue which really matters both for you as an MEP and
for Europe so listen to the lobbyists. Use them to bring you
information and to hone your debating skills. Enjoy their company,
but treat them with respect. They are as much a part of the
political process as you are. Remember one of the golden rules of
public affairs – “There is always tomorrow”. Today you are the
Member and they are lobbying you, but tomorrow … ?

Good luck, 

Tom Spencer 

Executive Director European Centre for Public Affairs
and 
Visiting Professor of Public Affairs, Brunel University. MEP
1979-84 & 1989-1999

For more analyses from Tom Spencer, visit the website of
the European Centre for Public Affairs or www.tomspencer.info

 

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