“There are a lot of myths about politics in Brussels”, says Mrs. Silvana Koch-Mehrin, a German Liberal Member of the European Parliament (MEP).
Lobbying is one of them. According to Koch-Mehrin, it very often has at least in the German context a bit of a negative connotation.
“I think the negative perception comes from the wrong impression that lobbyists and politicians are very comfortable sitting down in big leather armchairs, smoking cigars while sipping whisky and deciding on this and that, when it very often is really just working on a text, providing arguments for or against, explaining technical details – so much less spectacular”, she laughs.
The suspicions exist also amongst MEPs themselves. Especially newly elected Members are more critical.
“But when you see the workload and the very limited staff – MEPs might have 4 assistants, US congressmen have 15 – you see that you actually need input from outside. That is why lobbyists play an important role as they provide the information”.
Connecting the two worlds
Koch-Mehrin knows the lobbying business. She herself used to work as a co-founder and director of a Brussels-based Public Affairs office.
“We were trying to influence the decision making process here in the EU institutions by speaking to the stakeholders and providing information to our mainly German clients”.
The problem with the EU is not however lack of information, but knowing how to use it and to whom to talk to. The often very technical text also needs be converted to a form that politicians can use. Koch-Mehrin says she actually felt as an interpreter between the two worlds – business and politics – that sometimes spoke different languages. Also, getting your foot in the Brussels door is not easy. Even a big player in Germany might not be known at all in the EU quarters.
“So just sending out policy papers is not enough, you have to find ways of making yourself relevant here. And if you only go to the MEPs from your country you don’t get very far”, she explains.
All different , all equal
One of the reasons for the ambiguity might be that it is difficult to clearly say who really is a lobbyist. There are business and consumer organizations, NGOs, law firms, representations of churches, Member States and regions. Some of them, like some NGOs, do not prefer to be called lobbyists at all.
“Very often NGOs manage to present themselves as representatives of the general interest”, the MEP says.
She sees this even more confusing if they are also receiving public funding.
“I find it problematic if half or more of their finances comes from the EU, and their main activity is to lobby the EU. In the US it is very clear. There, state funded organizations are service providers, not NGOs. Regardless of what they are called, what they do is exactly the same”.
“They all try to present their specific interests regarding some political decision, to be sure that when decisions are made the politicians are aware of the consequences their decisions may have. The views of course differ based on who is telling the story. There is no one truth”.
“If you are from Greenpeace or present the chemical industry you might have a different view. But both views are valid, both views have importance”, Koch-Mehrin acknowledges.
She stresses that a responsible MEP listens to both sides. However there might be differences in who you want to favor to reinforce your own arguments. In the end it is always the politician who makes the decisions.
Clearer rules still needed
In order to be a successful lobbyist you have to apply a serious and sustainable way of working.
“The best is to provide relevant information without taking up too much time”, Koch-Mehrin advises.
The approach also depends on the status of the decision making process. At an earlier stage political arguments are more useful, and later on precise information about how the wording of the draft law might affect certain industries is a good idea. But sometimes engagement with lobbyists can end up being more a waste of time than an actual working tool. Examples of ”worst practices” are not difficult to find. Mass spam emails, forcing oneself into the office without an appointment, going over the top with offering gifts…
The German reminds that no code of conduct for MEPs exist for the moment. She would like to see clear rules in force, since without them MEPs tend to follow the way matters are done back home.
“And there sure are cultural differences”, she sighs. After the “amendments for money” scandal, the President of the European Parliament, Mr. Jerzy Buzek decided to take preparations for establishing a code of conduct by January 2012 under his direct control. He now asks for more openness to the declaration of interests of MEPs and wants to make sure that there will be no conflict of interest for the rapporteurs – the law drafters.
So things are improving. But one should not go too far either.
“When trying to increase transparency of lobbying, you have to find out what is really relevant. Is it purposeful to list all the meetings an MEP has? Where do you start, where do you stop? Should only the meetings in the Parliament be recorded, or also those at Place Luxembourg where you meet everybody anyway, or when you talk to a friend, other school parents or back at home about issues that affect your decision making?”, Koch-Mehrin asks.
– Co-founder and director of public affairs consultancy 1999–2004
– Member of European Parliament since 2004 in the Group of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe ALDE (Free Democratic Party FDP of Germany)
– Vice-Chair of the ALDE Group 2004–2009
– Head of the German Liberal Delegation in the European Parliament 2004–2011
– Vice-President of European Parliament 2009–2011