The recent London School of Economics analysis  of the comparative success of business and citizen group lobbying at the EU level raises important questions for business about to structure its European advocacy. Surprising to some, perhaps less to others, the analysis reveals that between 2008 and 2010, business was far less successful than citizen groups in achieving their goals in relation to EU legislative decisions.

The LSE identifies two main reasons for this difference: i) the fact that business interests often lack a “natural ally” in contemporary EU legislative decision-making; and ii) the “low-regulation status quo” favoured by business naturally pits it against the ambition of European policymakers.

With regard to the low-regulation status quo, it would be interesting to re-run the analysis in several years and see if this trend has continued, given the new, more business-oriented EU executive.

I have a suspicion that the gap in lobbying success will not be as marked. Nonetheless, I believe business will need to give further consideration to how it presents its low-regulation message and to set out a clearer vision, with supporting evidence, of how it can help meet today’s societal challenges without recourse to regulation.

The question of “natural allies” highlights a potentially more interesting, systemic problem with business advocacy at the EU level. Where citizen groups invest considerable energy in mobilizing wider opinion, I believe business all too often limits EU advocacy to policy elites.

It is true that citizen groups often have a head start when it comes to stakeholder activation; as they are typically established to advocate on a specific interest around which natural constituencies of “allies” exist. However, I believe if made a priority, business has just as much potential to develop natural allies as citizen groups. Unfortunately, all too often they don’t.

Of course, working directly with decision-makers is critically important, and confronted with time and resource limitations may be the only route of travel.  However, I would argue that for too long business has not given enough consideration to how, in our increasingly political and connected world, popular opinion shapes public policy outcome.  

There is a growing body of evidence to show that on many issues, particularly those that are, or can be made to be, more “political”, the voice of a wider consensus all too often trumps closely negotiated detail. Talking to citizen group representatives about the LSE analysis, a shared view was that they do not have the same reach to policy elites as business but are more campaign oriented and creative in making their case; in terms of evidence and form, as well as in using all the channels of advocacy available to them.  

Reflecting on this, in my mind citizen groups have been far more successful at bringing together their government relations (direct to decision-maker advocacy) and public affairs (wider stakeholder community) in shaping legislative detail and final EU policy outcome.  

In this regard, I believe that if business wants to turn tables it needs to start by being clear as to distinct roles of government relations and public affairs in shaping EU policy outcomes and must be ready to adopt a longer term, boarder perspective on advocacy, particularly where policy has the potential for really serious business impact.

Tom Parker

Tom Parker is managing partner at Cambre Associates.