Business associations are facing increased competition from individual companies in influencing the EU policymaking process, industry bosses heard last week (29 April).
The challenge facing industry federations is that they must adapt their work to the long-term agenda of the European Commission if they are to influence its policies, participants in the tenth annual Euroconference – hosted by Kellen Europe – were told.
"Associations will always be a privileged partner for the Commission, but we see them as defenders of existing interests," said Kurt Vandenberghe, head of cabinet for Environment Commissioner Janez Poto?nik, describing a "paradigm shift" in the EU policymaking arena.
Commission 'won't wait' for associations
"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."
His comments were echoed by Ruth Rawling, vice-president for corporate affairs at Cargill Europe and a member of the management board at the European Centre for Public Affairs (ECPA).
"The speed of change in companies is rarely matched by the ability of interest representation to adapt," said Rawling. "It's up to members to help associations to change," she said, calling for more reflection on where European federations can provide services that national business associations cannot.
"Many associations cannot change quickly enough to provide what their members need," the PA boss said, citing this as a reason for the recent growth of in-house public affairs within Europe's major companies.
Rawling criticised some industry federations' failure to anticipate the growing influence of think-tanks and NGOs in the EU policymaking arena, and stressed the importance of developing close links with civil society organisations rather than focusing exclusively on the European institutions.
Some business representatives thought differently. "Criticism that associations don't react quickly enough is interesting, but awareness of some issues like climate change is definitely growing," insisted Philippe de Buck, director-general of BusinessEurope, which represents Europe's biggest businesses.
Companies stronger together
"Companies are asking for movement because they want predictability. Their interests will often converge, but individual firms won't realise this by themselves, and they won't be able to convince the Commission or the Parliament to act if they work on their own," de Buck said, making the case for membership of associations.
Other business leaders questioned whether it was ethical for the Commission to seek the advice of companies in drawing up draft legislation.
Adrian Harris, secretary-general of Orgalime, the European engineering industry association, warned the European Commission against communicating directly with firms rather than associations.
"How does the Commission know whether someone is pushing to protect the interests of one particular company for commercial reasons, rather than representing the sector as a whole" Harris asked.
Commissioner Poto?nik's head of cabinet insisted that the EU executive was aware of this risk. "It's not like we just take one company's opinion and run," Vandenberghe said, but "leading companies can have a major influence on agenda-setting".
The EU institutions are increasingly relying on impact assessments to make sure new legislation is effective, said the Commission official, which is leading to a "frantic" search for accurate and relevant data within the EU executive.
Indeed, the Commission's ever-growing need for reliable information gives the businesses that provide it "a key role in influencing EU policy," Vandenberghe admitted.
"We must work with economic operators to create the markets of the future," the Commission official explained, declaring that business must be "at the forefront" of creating a new, innovative Europe. "Expect to see more public-private partnerships," he said.
Lobby register under fire
Meanwhile, some participants questioned the usefulness of the voluntary lobby register launched by the European Commission in 2008.
"I've never checked whether or not anyone is in the register before meeting them, but in my office I'll give you a card inviting you to sign up," Vandenberghesaid. "I give more credibility to organisations if I know who they actually represent, which means having been here for a while."
BusinessEurope's director-general, meanwhile, questioned the quality of the data it contains. "Some companies are over-estimating their expenditure [on lobbying the EU institutions] to show that they are active, while others are under-estimating it," he said.
De Buck urged the European Commission to clarify what the lobby register and the information it contains is actually being used for. "Not being invited to events or to take part in consultations unless you are registered would have been an idea, but that's not in the rules of the game. The instrument as such is questionable," he said.
Talks between MEPs and the Commission on improving the transparency of EU decision-making – including drawing up a joint, mandatory lobby register between the European Parliament and the EU executive – will resume on 6 May.