I’ve had a very busy week; attended a few good lectures, heard lots of interesting things, had many engaging conversations and learned something too. Part of it was that I participated in a tremendously eye-opening workshop on lobbying the EU. Partly theoretical, but also very practical workshop, was led by a Belgian lecturer from the Ghent University Rik Otten who has himself spent some time in the EU political circles in Brussels, so he spoke from his own experience too.
Although I am sure that what I have heard in this short eight-hour workshop only barely scratched the surface on lobbying the EU, it was enlightening to hear about one aspect of the EU policy shaping. We heard all about how to prepare for lobbying campaigns, how and where to begin, the do’s and do not’s, the ethics, corruption, infamous cases–pretty much everything about lobbying in a tiny nutshell. It’s a complex thing, but it all boils down to relationship management and chess-like techniques.
As it often is, many of the things are rather obvious, but nevertheless you one might not think of them immediately. For instance, before you can even begin lobbying you have to know what for and who you need to talk to. Sounds a lot easier than it is. So, how do you approach the right person? Networking. Go places where you will meet them, in other words purposefully bump into them and start the small-talk. Never mention your intentions the first time you meet. Talk about something completely else. Exchange business cards. Try to bump into them the second time. Talk more, you mention the topic you’re lobbying for (or against), but don’t present it as an issue or a problem. Not just yet; build the relationship first. Maybe after your third or fourth encounter you could give them a phone call and say something along the lines of: “Remember that thing we were talking about, well I’ve got some really interesting information about this I’ll send your way.” Then go play golf or tennis to discuss it. Not only that this sounds like, but it practically is dating.
In Brussels alone there are 15,000 lobbyists. Although being a lobbyist is nothing to be ashamed of, of those 15,000 trying to influence EU policy making, only 5,000 are registered as lobbyists. And I bet that most of them are registered just because registration allows them the access to the European Parliament, which is needed at least at some point. And 15,000 lobbyists does sound a bit scary if you try to imagine the clash of interests, I like the perspective EU officials are taking on this: one lobbyist means corruption, thousand provide a solution.
Power is useless if not used tactfully. If you personally know, for instance, the commissioner covering the area which you are trying to influence, it is an absolute no-no to contact them directly. High-ranking officials have power, but they practically never do the tedious research work or write documents and arguments themselves. They have assistants for that, and these assistants, who just like everyone else, don’t like to hear from their boss what they have to write, how and when. So, if they hear your instructions from their boss, the chances are great they will bite back, won’t write up, delay, or even skew something. In other words, you’re screwed. It is the assistants you need to approach first and influence the commissioner through them. Befriend the small cogs in a huge apparatus, pursue them to be in favor of your cause, they will in turn change the system for you.
This, in fact, skilled lobbyists knew already very early on. I particularly liked the example of Philips. In the 1980’s hundreds of people who were on the payroll of the Dutch electronics giant, worked in the offices of high-ranking EU politicians. Philips seeded people who were shaping the EU policies in favor of their business. I’m sure there were many companies or interest group doing the same thing. Generosity eventually went so far that the number and origin of high-ranking officials’ little helpers needed to be restricted and monitored closely. Although these days it is not uncommon that assistants quit their well paid job and start working as lobbyists taking all their immediate knowledge and contacts to the new working place and utilizing it in a different setting within a different agenda.
And then there are the differences between lobbying in Brussels and Washington. In many ways what is legitimate lobbying in the US is corruption in the EU. How so? Common wining and dining is accepted in the US, but is considered corruption in the EU; politicians are often voted into the office with the support of a lobby group there, while such thing luckily doesn’t happen around the EU. It seems like reason wins in Europe and money talks in the US.
Jack Abramoff is a case in point; the amount and variety of stuff Abramoff did so far in his lobbying career is quite impressive, even for a criminal record, I suppose. He obviously took things to the far when lobbying for the Indian gambling interests, thus his trial in January 2006 has inspired regulative actions both in the US with the Legislative Transparency and Accountability Act of 2006 and in the EU with Green Paper on European Transparency Initiative. A powerful gentleman, no doubt about that.
Anyway, the workshop was an extremely brief encounter with the world of lobbying, but nevertheless very insightful. Too often we easily forget that the world is run by the others. Thus even a peek into the inner workings of political behemoths is always a welcome enlightening. Knowledge is power.