The future of Brussels lobbying

The last decade has witnessed an unparalleled development in the lobby profession in Europe and around the world. Wherever you work: in-house for a company, an association, or for an agency, the work you do, and the way you do it, have also changed considerably. So what will the lobbyist of five years’ hence look like? What will be the skills required? How will these skills be acquired?

I was recently interviewed on this issue, and here are my answers to the questions posed.

1. How do you define a lobbyist?

A lobbyist is simply somebody who influences legislators.

Transparency International recently calculated there are 25,000 Brussels lobbyists and a further 10-15,000 lobbyists across Europe that occasionally influence decisions in Brussels as well.

2. If we look 5 or 10 years ahead in time, do you believe that the number of lobbyists will increase or decrease? What’s the trend?

The growth of lobbying in Brussels is inextricably linked to the growth and importance of the EU.  20 years ago there were 15 EU Member States and an estimated 10,000 lobbyists. Now there are 27 Member States and around 25,000 lobbyists.   Many new lobbyists have come from new member states to lobby in Brussels.  However, we cannot expect that kind of growth in the future, given there will not be anything like previous enlargement of the EU as we near the limits of natural European enlargement.  Indeed the EU has shrunk with Brexit but that doesn’t mean necessarily that there will be fewer British organisations lobbyists in Brussels in the longer term, in fact, arguably British companies and associations will need to staff up their presence as their government loses formal channels of influence over EU policy making.  Regardless of the growth of the EU, the lobbying profession has grown globally and in Europe because it has become a more accepted function within any organization that needs to influence policy.  Most global companies increased their in-house lobbying staff in the last few years. The Public Affairs Council recently released new data showing that almost a third of companies increased their numbers of European lobbyists.  We have also witnessed organisations from new sectors, from apps to fintech and the gig economy, setting up Brussels offices to deal with new EU regulation.

3. What will clients be looking for when hiring a lobbyist in 5 or 10 years? What will be the most sought-after skills?

Lobbying is about influencing the actions, policies, or decisions of a legislator. Successful lobbying in Brussels has traditionally been about conveying the right information, to the right people at the right time. However, in an age of false information, fake news, populism and extraordinary politics the past may not equal the future.

For any future trends in European lobbying it is always interesting to look at what is going on in the USA.  As the former executive director of the Association of Government Relations Professionals in Washington DC recently wrote: “The stereotypical lobbyist is gone. Because of ethics rules and a changing profession, gone are the days of steak dinners and all-day golf trips for many lobbyists.  The new normal is cattle-call fundraisers, five minutes with staff in a hallway, and the hope that a congressional aide will retweet your company’s 140 character message.”  So while in Brussels two hour lunches with wine are out, and tweeting your audiences may be fashionable, there are two huge areas of lobbying activity in Washington that will surely finally gain traction in Brussels in the future, grassroots and digital which these days are inextricably linked.

Digital skills. In the modern workplace, digital skills are highly valued; in the future, digital skills will be vital.  Coronavirus will only accelerate this requirement. Digital literacy is a language; the more digital skills you have, the better you can speak it.  Hence, senior lobbyists who can use Excel to organize budgets and workflow, or can harness Twitter effectively already have an advantage over those less digitally literate.  In the future top candidates for lobbying jobs will be not just be fluent in English but ‘digitally native’.

Although it is rare we see in today’s job specifications for senior lobbyists, we expect employers to look increasingly for experience of and success in five key areas of digital skills:

  • Finding, managing and storing digital information and content.
  • Communicating, interacting, collaborating, sharing and connecting with others online.
  • Problem-solving using digital tools.
  • Creating and promoting digital content.
  • Engaging with communities online.

Grassroots skills.  Grassroots lobbying differs from other forms of lobbying in that it involves the mass mobilization of the public around a particular issue. The key to successful grassroots lobbying efforts is assembling people who share common goals and concerns.  Grassroots lobbying involves appealing to the general public in the hopes that people, rather than lobbyists, will contact government officials about an issue.  NGOs particularly in the environmental field have deployed grassroots lobbying tactics with digital finesse for years, often outflanking well-funded corporate public affairs teams.  For instance, Politico recently reported “How grassroots lobbying push blindsided Monsanto” describing “Protesters dressed as bottles of Roundup and called for officials in Paris, Berlin and Brussels to ban the chemical at rallies. Avaaz also launched a petition urging the EU to “immediately suspend approval of glyphosate.” More than 2 million people signed on.”

National lobbying experience.   As Commission First Vice President Frans Timmermans said: “The EU is not about Brussels, nor about the Commission or Parliament. These are merely instruments. The fact is that all member states are Europe. We are all Europe and parts of this union.” EU policy-making is very slow, often painfully slow.  For instance the European community patent took 40 years to come into being.  Meanwhile most companies’ real European public affairs opportunities and threats exist in the 27 Member States.  Whether a bank seeks recapitalisation, a pharma company wants to sell a drug at a certain price and reimbursed or an IT company is tending for a government contract, their short term public affairs challenges are local.

4. What is the importance of the role of a lobbyist? What would the EU look like without lobbyists?

While the EU is often criticised for being full of bureaucrats, in fact there are only around 42,000 people employed by the European Commission, Parliament and Council which is less than many European city councils.  So the EU relies on external advice and support to create policies that are rooted in the real world.  Ironically without lobbyists it is likely the EU would have to hire more staff to engage with companies and society, who would in turn have to hire people to talk to them and probably call them lobbyists to make them effective.  So in fact it is unimaginable to do without lobbyists – even in the Communist People’s Republic of China the lobbying profession is alive and well.

Mark Dober, Managing Partner, Dober Partners