There are different types of lobby actors, with corporations, industry lobby groups, NGOs and trade unions, professional lobby consultancies, law firms and think tanks being the biggest.
The main and most obvious players are the large corporations themselves, whose offices in Brussels employ in-house lobbyists who work directly to promote their interests. Companies with lobby offices in Brussels include big names and global brands like Goldman Sachs, Google, Shell, Volkswagen, and Philip Morris.
Industry lobby groups / Trade associations
Industry federations and trade associations bring together companies operating in a specific sector. Almost every industry imaginable has a lobby office in Brussels that represents the interests of the companies in its particular sector, from the Danish Transport and Logistics Association and the Association of European Candle Makers to some of the biggest and most powerful lobbyists in town like CEFIC (European Chemical Industry Council) or the Association for Financial Markets in Europe. These trade associations direct and coordinate EU lobbying activities for their members, who are often major companies or national federations of a given industry. The European Commission, as the initiator of EU legislation, is especially important to these actors. The earlier their lobbying becomes manifest in a policy, the easier their work becomes. Setting out an industry’s priorities to officials at the nascent stage of a law means their voice gets heard before Members of the European Parliament (MEPs), NGOs or citizens have even seen a first draft. Such early intervention also reduces the risk of the public or the media becoming all too aware of the influence which industry federations and trade associations have already had on a draft policy. They therefore frequently work behind closed doors and far from the public eye, attempting to co-write rules and regulations.
Cross-sectoral lobby groups
Cross-sectoral lobby groups, in which big business bands together across sectors – are the most powerful lobby actors in terms of political impact and access to the highest-ranking decision makers. The two most potent of these are the European Round Table of Industrialists (ERT), composed of the heads of around 50 of the largest transnational corporations in Europe, as well as BusinessEurope, the continent’s main umbrella organisation for employers. Both organisations are such frequent visitors to the Commission’s Berlaymont headquarter, they may as well be charged rent! Every year, in fact, BusinessEurope holds a day-long lobbying event in the Berlaymont building, where prominent Commissioners mingle with the CEOs of some of the biggest transnational corporations. The ERT has also exerted much influence over the EU’s long-term strategy since the early 1980s, helping, for example, to shape the form of the European single market. The CEOs of Vodafone, Heineken, Nestlé and Siemens are all members of this exclusive club and their ‘free expertise’ is actively sought by the Commission and provided all too willingly. Both ERT and BusinessEurope have been central drivers of the EU’s austerity agenda and neoliberal reform mantra, as well as the shape of corporate-friendly trade deals, particularly over the last ten years.
NGOs and Trade Unions
Civil society groups and trade unions have gradually expanded their presence in the EU quarter in the last decades. Nevertheless, they continue to be greatly outnumbered and outspent by industry lobbies. LobbyFacts.eu research (January 2017) shows that corporations and their lobby groups have 60 per cent more lobbyists with access passes to the European Parliament than civil society (3000 as opposed to 1900 accredited lobbyists). The imbalance in spending power is also enormous, particularly on issues like financial regulation. A Corporate Europe Observatory study in 2014 found that the financial sector spends over 120 million euro on EU lobbying per year, 30 times more than NGOs and trade unions combined. Bigger numbers of lobbyists and more money doesn’t mean big business always wins, but it clearly gives business lobbies a strong advantage and often results in excessive industry influence on many policies.
A host of professional consultancies offer their influencing services, and the vast majority of corporations take them up on their offer. Employing public relations and policy experts with specialist lobbying knowledge, these consultancies are the mercenaries of the lobby world, selling strategic lobbying advice and services to the highest bidder. From image-laundering to greenwashing, astroturfing and creating front groups for big corporations , lobby consultancies are known for their ability to manipulate public debate or get face-to-face meetings with the most influential decision makers in the EU institutions. Among the biggest consultancies in town are Burson Marsteller, Fleishman-Hillard and Hill & Knowlton.
Very few law firms are currently registered in the EU Transparency Register, but walking through the EU quarter in Brussels, the number of international and especially US law companies is striking. Many provide EU lobbying services as well as more traditional legal advice and representation, but very little is known about their lobbying activities. Either they do not sign up to the transparency register at all, or simply claim that, as a law firm they must respect client confidentiality, enabling them to keep lobbying under the radar.
Think tanks have also become influential Brussels bubble players. Some provide a convenient and seemingly ‘independent’ channel to assist their corporate sponsors with their lobbying, which makes the ‘think tank’ label vulnerable to abuse. Offering a veneer of objectivity and openness to debate, it can function as a neat cover for corporate interests. Think tanks can also play an important role in the ideological construction of political agendas that serve their corporate backers, e.g. the lowering of corporate tax rates or cuts on social spending. They also give members and followers the opportunity to network on many levels, including informal encounters between lobbyists and Commission officials.