Lobbying the European Union: Between Praise and Criticism


Lobbying is a practice to influence decision-making and public policy outcomes — a practice of public affairs management. A lot of lobbying takes place to amend a piece of legislation or to influence a public policy area. Lobbying is a well known practice in many countries and supranational entities, including the European Union (EU). The development of procedural rules to engage with the EU institutions has resulted in progressively more powers being vested in supranational mechanisms of decision-making and shifted the modus operandi of interest groups to the ‘Brussels route’.

This article examines the emergence of lobbying as a practice of exertion of influence, discusses scholarly models that shape lobbying practices in the European Union, and draws conclusions confirming the intention of interest groups to address the contested positions and score benefits in support to special interests.

Notion of Lobbying

Very often lobbying ‘owes’ a bad reputation in continental Europe. The main objections cited by critics include the presence of corruption, lack of transparency, and maneuvering by lobbyists trying to buy political influence. In this regard, Jean-Jacques Rousseau writes in his classic ‘The Social Contract’ that “[n]othing is more dangerous than the influence of private interests on public affairs, and the abuse of law by the government is a lesser evil than the corruption of the legislator inevitably resulting from the pursuit of private interests”. Therefore, “the ‘scandalisation’ of the issue contributes to the ‘lobbying myth’. […] The ‘lobbying myth’ is therefore, like most myths and legends, far removed from the reality”. (Joos 2011)

Consequently, a simple question may arise: ‘what is lobbying’? “The notion of lobbying refers to the medieval practice of entering the lobia or corridor of a prince or principal. It has nothing to do with the negative meaning it has acquired in some corners of the mass media”.

Despite much criticism expressed in defining lobbying as something negative, there is something to be said about lobbying as “the aggregation of interests”. According to the latter definition, lobbying ensures the formation of plurality of viewpoints in the political discourse, as no politics exists without interests. “The aggregation and communication of interests is thus essential to democracy: the articulation of interests from society offers the political system important information which would be unlikely to procure itself without external input. Another, closely related aspect is political participation as politics should, after all, be based on the interests of those directly being affected by political decisions”. (Joos 2011) 

Models for Lobbying the EU

 “It is not surprising that a significant resource dependency between officials and lobbyists based on regulatory needs, expertise, information and reputation has emerged in the European public policy process”. Nowadays, an immense number of interest groups seek ways to influence and shape EU policy-making. However, one has to bear in mind that EU legislative arena is by no means uniform and varies both in its characteristics and nature. Thereby, those characteristics have significant consequences for lobbying strategies and lobbying success. Moreover, “an important factor affecting EU interest group politics is the complexity of the legislative proposals and the related policy issues”. (Coen)

Thus, the EU institutions are frequently looking for external expertise. This relates to the small number of staff in proportion to the large amount of policy competences of the European Union. Interest groups, who are typically experts in their specific fields, are therefore welcome interlocutors.

There is a division between two types of interest groups willing to influence the European Union. On the one hand, there are ones which represent political systems that already have sizable opportunities to form policy-making at home and little incentives to lobby the European institutions. Those are vertically and horizontally decentralized, categorized by corporatist mode of interest intermediation.  On the other hand, domestic interest groups coming from highly centralized systems are essentially expelled from national political discourse and therefore have incentives to mobilize and assemble in Brussels.

Exchange Model

A relevant metaphor in understanding the connection between exchange theory and lobbying is the open-air Middle Eastern bazaar:

“In the bazaar, interest groups and officials are buyers and sellers. An interest organization comes to the market, decides which policy option it wants to purchase, and bids for it. The bid might include electoral support, campaign contributions, or information that is valuable to the policymaker. As in the case in economic markets, competition among interest groups drives up the price of an official’s policy support. For example, if both sides on an issue are bidding for a legislator’s support, the price the legislator can demand for his/her support is higher than if only one side requests the assistance. An interesting aspect of the bazaar is that policymakers can charge different prices to different interest groups. If a buyer is from a legislator’s ‘district’, the legislator might charge that interest group a lower price than he charges buyers who are not in his/her district. A one-time purchaser of policy for an interest that is not part of the legislator’s electoral constituency is treated differently than a regular, repeat customer from one’s own ‘district’. Similarly, organized interests pay different prices to policymakers. If a policymaker has greater influence over a particular issue, his/her time is worth more than the time of a policymaker who has less influence”. (Godwin 2013)

Lobbyists and EU officials equally exercise market-type relationships to initiate legislative processes. For example, in the European Commission, lobbyists are welcome as ‘desired’ interlocutors when a particular Directorate-General needs more expertise, technical information, research materials, and issue analyses.  In the European Parliament, lobbyists are ‘politely received’ when the MEPs are dependent on their electoral constituencies. Moreover, access to deliberative and well-analyzed research is vital for MEPs to fulfill their obligations as rapporteurs in specific committees. In exchange, lobbyists obtain the much wanted badges to have access to EU institutions to try to get their interests and recommendations fulfilled through the legislative acts and policy documents.

Pluralist Model

“Pluralists emphasize competing interests. A great advantage of an ideally functioning pluralist democracy is that as the importance of an issue to a group increases, its levels of effort and influence increase as well. Policymakers respond not only to the number of people affected by a disturbance but also to the level of harm that the disturbance creates.

When those who care more about an issue expend more resources lobbying than those who care less, the policies resulting from interest-group competition will come closer to maximizing net social welfare than would policies that reflected only the number of individuals on either side of the issue. To see how this might work, assume that you and two friends are choosing a restaurant for tonight’s dinner. Two of you prefer the local Chinese restaurant, but Chinese food makes the third person ill. Even though a majority favours the Chinese restaurant, the intense preference of the third person means that you would probably choose not to eat Chinese”. (Ken 2013)

Neo-Pluralist Model

 “The neo-pluralist model argues that most policy issues involve competition among organized interests and that each side has sufficient resources to lobby successfully. The emphasis is on interests and interest competition. The metaphor of a tug-of-war best describes the neo-pluralist model of lobbying and group influence. Each side attempts to move public policy closer to its desired position. For example, government regulation of water pollution is a policy issue. The current level of regulation is the result of past battles between environmental groups that prefer more strict regulation and polluting industries that prefer less strict regulation. Lobbyists on both sides use their resources to change the policy in their preferred direction”. (Godwin 2013) 

The Other Side of the Coin

“All actions relating to the right of other human beings are wrong if their maxim is incompatible with publicity”. (Kant 1795) Back in the 18th century, Immanuel Kant has already spoken about the value and importance of publicity. Publicity, transparency as well as access to information constitute essential elements of fundamental human rights. (Naurin 2007)

With respect to the interest intermediation in the EU, one may ask how transparent and unbiased the EU is in interaction with private interest groups. It is believed that commercial interests enjoy more rights and privileges in access to key EU institutions and documents rather than public interest groups. “The uneven playing field between those lobbying for commercial interests versus the defenders of wider public is further skewed by the privileged access to decision makers that big business lobbyists enjoy. As a result, EU directives, regulations and other policy initiatives are often weakened by industry’s lobbying power”. (Dinan and Wesselius 2010)

Moreover, some theorists and practitioners argue that lobbying conducted by the corporate interest groups leads not only to decrease, but also elimination of the transparency of EU governance. It opens up a discussion that legislation is being initiated and written contrary to the public interest, and instead, in support of private industry interests.

The following dimensions shape further criticism regarding lobbying the European Union:

  • How transparent is the Commission’s Transparency Register?
  • What are the ethics and limitations to when EU officials become lobbyists?

The Commission operates a voluntary register called the ‘Transparency Register’, the aim of which is to trace the record of “activities carried out with the objective of directly or indirectly influencing the formation or implementation of policy and decision-making processes of the EU institutions”. (Chambers 2016) The Register lacks credibility given that data about lobbying expenses are unreliable and vague, and it is impossible to know how much each registered organization is spending on lobbying activities in a given year. It also does not bind the lobbying groups with a responsibility to sign up and provide the detailed data on their lobbying activities. (Dinan and Wesselius 2010)

The situation is also worrying when EU officials become lobbyists after leaving their offices and cabinets in the Berlaymont building in Brussels. The existing ethics standards prescribe an 18-month probationary period for European Commissioners. Unlike Commissioners, Members of the European Parliament are not subject to integrity procedures and transparency. Hence, this augments the conflict of interests with profitable employment offers for the future. (Freund and Bendel 2017)


This article concludes that the European Union is a highly favored environment for diverse lobbying activities. The EU enjoys popularity as an important interlocutor for interest groups to advance their agendas and influence the EU public policy-making.


  • Anthony Chambers, “The Lobbying of the EU: How to achieve greater transparency”, in: Civitas: Institute for the Study of Civil Society, February, 2016
  • Daniel Freund, Yannik Bendel, Access All Areas: When EU politicians become lobbyists, Transparency International EU, 2017
  • Daniel Naurin, Deliberation behind closed doors: transparency and lobbying in the European Union, ECPR Press, Colchester, 2007
  • David Coen, “Empirical and theoretical studies in EU lobbying”, in: Journal of European Public Policy, Vol. 14, No 3
  • Ken Godwin, Scott Ainsworth, Erik Godwin, Lobbying and Policymaking, Congressional Quarterly Inc., California, 2013
  • Klemens Joos, Lobbying in the new Europe: Successful representation of interests after the Treaty of Lisbon, Wiley, Germany, 2011
  • Rinus van Schendelen, The Art of Lobbying the EU: More Machiavelli in Brussels (Revised ed.), Amsterdam University Press, Amsterdam, 2013
  • William Dinan, Erik Wesselius, “Brussels-a lobbying paradise?, in: Bursting the Brussels Bubble, ALTER-EU, 2010

Image source: corporateeurope.org

About the Author 

Galya Hovhannisyan holds a Master’s degree in European Interdisciplinary Studies from the College of Europe in Natolin.

This article is produced by the Eurasian Research and Analysis Institute, Inc. (ERA Institute), a public, 501(c)(3) nonprofit institution devoted to studying Eurasian affairs. All views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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