Although the results of the European Parliament elections have been
a trifle undermined by widespread voter apathy, they are fascinating all
the same. At a time when the majority of the EU’s governments are
left-leaning, the member states’ electorates have voted for a parliament
in which the centre right is the strongest group.
Not only has the political complexion of the parliament changed, but so
too have a huge proportion of its faces. Only 46 per cent of the MEPs
elected this time sat in the last parliament.
Elaine Cruikshanks, managing director of Hill and Knowlton’s Brussels
office says there will be ’quite a learning curve’, both for new members
trying to come to grips with the minutiae of Europe’s arcane political
institutions - and for the public affairs professionals as they try to
pin down who will emerge as the key influencers in Strasbourg.
At first it may seem a little like lobbying in a labyrinth. But on a
positive note, many of the new intake should appreciate any constructive
support they receive from lobbyists.
’To ensure effective lobbying you need to demonstrate a thorough
knowledge of procedures,’ says head of Westminster Europe Thierry
Lebeaux. ’MEPs have so many calls on their time that they are not always
sure about all the rules on procedures - so they expect you to be able
to tell them what to do and when to do it.’
Clearly, professional public affairs consultants know their way around
the European system. But while this expertise is certainly valuable it
is often shunned by NGOs, the pressure and special interest groups that
seek to influence policy creation and budget allocation in their own
Sometimes it is lack of funds alone that persuades NGOs to plough their
own furrow. In other instances, however, it is a realisation that their
arguments may stand a greater chance of hitting home if they are
developed and presented without apparent recourse to external
’NGOs are very effective lobbyists in their own right,’ says Maria
Laptev, director of consultancy GPC. ’The issues they tend to handle are
quite grass-rootish and the strength of opinion and commitment they have
really helps them.’
Brigitte Ernst, director of the EU office of Amnesty International,
agrees that a passion for the cause is an important factor in favour of
NGOs lobbying direct. Ernst, a former MEP says that while she was at
Strasbourg she always had a little ’scepticism’ about professional
lobbyists who could be seen lobbying for one cause and then another.
’It’s conviction that is convincing,’ she says. ’But it is complicated.
That is why more and more NGOs have understood the importance of having
someone in Brussels who understands the system. The EU evolves and there
are changes in the structures.’
Frazer Goodwin, policy officer for the European Federation for Transport
and the Environment, an NGO campaigning for a more sustainable transport
system in Europe, says: ’We’re usually able to get parliamentarians on
side because we’re in this not for personal financial reward, but
because we have a message we believe in.’
It would be misleading, though, to form the impression that NGOs are
getting by on passion and commitment alone. While some are grievously
underfunded, others have grown into very sophisticated operations. When
nature charity WWF set up in Brussels in 1989 it was a one-man
Today its team in the capital of Europe numbers just short of 20.
’Quite a lot of things the NGOs deal with are regarded as politically
important,’ says European Citizens Action Service director Tony
’A lot of the work in the European Parliament is through NGOs organising
all party groups in things like animal welfare and health.’
As well as campaigning on its own behalf, ECAS offers public affairs
advice and information to smaller NGOs on a subscription basis.
The European Parliament has incontrovertibly gained in power and stature
during the 1990s and as such has increasingly been focused on by
’MEPs are much more accessible for the NGOs than the Commission,’ says
Director of the European Consumers’ Organisation BEUC Jim Murray feels
this accessibility is, to an extent, due to the fact that the parliament
is not set up like national parliaments which run on a government and
opposition basis. This, of course, leads to the dragooning of members by
political parties with the consequence that their views are often
pre-determined from on high. Murray fears, however, that as time goes by
and the European Parliament continues to increase in importance there
may be more ’rigidity’ among members. It is the commission, though, that
initiates legislation, even though it takes great note of what is going
on in parliament - even greater note, point out the cynics, since the
parliament bared its teeth earlier this year over the charges of
corruption and incompetence levelled at several commissioners that led
to the unedifying departure of EC president Jacques Santer.
Although technically unable to initiate legislation, the parliament can
still act as a trigger for the framing of a bill. And when the
parliament chooses to exercise this right it is, these days, taken
seriously. The main driver of new legislation,however, remains the
Tony Long, director of WWF’s European policy office, applauds the
commission for encouraging input from relevant NGOs as it researches key
issues while preparing legislation.
Indeed, the relationships between Europe’s political institutions and
certain NGOs can be symbiotic. For example, the European Environment
Bureau receives funding from the EC’s DGXI, and many NGOs work hand in
glove with the commission on EU-funded projects.
However, given its heavy workload, the commission may in the future be
keen to avoid legislating where it is not necessary. In areas where
compromise and consensus would serve just as well, for example.
Cruikshanks thinks there will be an increase in NGOs and big business
coming together to discuss issues of concern. ’Business will
increasingly be talking to NGOs to discover the art of the possible,’
she says. ’This may obviate the need for legislation in some areas.’
Yet in dealings with commission, corporate interests are far more likely
to enlist the help of public affairs consultancies than NGOs. In part,
this is because they are more likely to have budgets that will stretch
to accommodate the fees of external advisers.
But, although many corporates employ top notch public affairs
professionals in-house, a sense of caution may also explain their
greater use of consultancies.
As Lebeaux puts it: ’The way NGOs urge the commission to act is
something that no company would do. NGOs are given more latitude. It
might be detrimental for a company to address the commission in this
It has been estimated that there are some 10,000 lobbyists in
A good few of these belong to NGOs. According to Shandwick Public
Affairs Brussels managing director John Russell, the number of NGOs is
growing steadily, as is their influence. This, says Russell, calls for
an increased amount of ’secondary lobbying’ on behalf of corporate
clients - that is, smoothing out issues with NGOs. The role of NGOs in
the European decision-making process has never been greater.
GROUNDED HOPES: UK voters fail to be lifted by election stunts
Before the European Parliament elections on 10 June, there was
widespread concern about voter apathy and ignorance in the UK.
Although the EP is the only directly elected institution representing
the EU’s 370 million inhabitants, huge swathes of the electorate
appeared unaware of its growing importance in framing Europe-wide laws
with implications for work and consumers’ rights, the environment and
other vital issues.
Worryingly, this lack of interest has been particularly pronounced among
the young. In the previous Euro election in 1994, a mere 11 per cent of
18- to 24-year-olds voted.
There was a concerted effort to raise awareness and stimulate
participation in the democratic process for this year’s election. A Use
Your Vote campaign was launched by the Young European Movement with the
objective of raising turn-out among young voters . The scheme gained the
backing of the National Union of Students, Rock the Vote and the youth
wings of the major political parties. More than 200,000 leaflets,
posters and postcards were sent out to young people across the UK
encouraging them to vote.
On a bigger scale, the EP itself pursued an awareness-raising campaign,
including a tour to 25 towns and cities across the UK of a spectacular
77,000 cubic foot blue balloon bearing the 12 stars of the EU flag and
the Use Your Vote Slogan.
Although there were some media jibes - such as the Daily Mail’s comment
of ’more hot air from Brussels’ - the tactic earned a lot of media
coverage, especially at a local level.
’We have been concerned about apathy,’ says EP press officer Edward
’The higher the turn-out, the more credibility it gives the
The Home Office ran an even bigger publicity campaign of its own to
explain the fact that for the first time, the UK was electing its 87
MEPs using an electoral system based on proportional representation.
Leaflets outlining the changes were distributed to 26 million
households. The pounds 3.5 million campaign also featured TV and radio
advertising, a web site and details on Teletext.
However, emblazoned on the front page of the Sun on the morning of the
elections was the prediction that 70 per cent of the electorate would
not be voting that day - and a suggestion of ten ’wacky’ things to do
with the EU Ballot Form.
The tabloid’s prediction was on the generous side. A turnout of 23 per
cent was the lowest in history for a national election, as the best
intentions of the PR campaign failed to overcome voter apathy and
weariness after a series of elections in the UK.
NEW HOUSE: Political figures tipped for lead roles in Europe
At this stage, so soon after the European Parliament elections , exactly
who will be influential in EU politics and how they will wield that
influence is still far from clear.
But despite the uncertainty, there are a number of figures that can
readily be identified as likely to play important roles in coming years,
especially so far as NGOs are concerned. The re-election of UK Labour
MEP Richard Howitt will, says APCO senior associate Matthew Heim, be
welcomed by many NGOs because of his past involvement in pushing for
greater corporate responsibility and attention to human rights.
The arrival of French Green Daniel Cohn-Bendit, who first shot to
Europe-wide prominence as a 1960s student-leading radical, will add
weight to the Greens who, with 38 MEPs, are now the fourth largest group
in the Parliament. Erstwhile Commissioner Emma Bonino is expected to be
an important voice on consumer affairs, while Portugal’s one-time prime
minister Mario Soares is seen as a leading contender for the role of
president of the Parliament.
With the socialists displaced as the leading political group by the
centre right European People’s Party, who will lead the EPP becomes an
important issue. Given that Germany is the country with the most
centre-right MEPs, the EPP leader will almost certainly be one of its
Christian Democrats, with Elmar Brok or Hans-Gert Pottering as the two
front-runners. Socialist leader Pauline Green is thought likely to be
displaced, but by whom is still far from clear. Interesting figures to
enter the parliament this time round include Ireland’s chanteuse turned
politician Dana and former EC president Jacques Santer.
Quite who will be appointed to which role - and indeed, in many cases,
exactly who various countries will be nominating to the commission - is
still under debate. Newly installed commission president Romano Prodi
appears committed to reform, and changes to some departmental portfolios
are expected. Among the commissioners returning from the previous
administration, Austrian Franz Fischler is thought the only one with a
strong chance of heading the same Directorate General as before, in his
The smart money says that the UK’s Neil Kinnock will be elevated to
become one of the EC’s two vice-presidents. Commission nominee, former
Tory Party chairman and ex-Hong Kong governor Chris Patten, has been
talked of as a possibility for the development policy brief - a position
of keen interest to NGOs - but has also been linked to other roles. A
lot of political horse-trading is still to come.
ENVIRONMENTAL CONCERN: How the WWF made its point to Europe
There has been a growing scientific consensus that certain man-made
chemicals - so-called Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals - have been leaking
into the environment through consumer product packaging and industrial/
agricultural waste. Their effect is to disrupt the behaviour and
reproductive capabilities of animals and, possibly, humans.
Concern about the potential ramifications of the chemicals led the WWF
to raise the issue with the European Parliament. At the end of 1996 the
then chair of the Parliament’s Environment Committee Ken Collins
realised the importance of the issue and began trying to convince other
MEPs that the committee should take a lead.
GLOBE, a pressure group of politicians interested in environmental
issues, lent WWF its support. A seminar was held at which a WWF
scientific expert spoke to an audience of MEPs, commission officials and
World Health Organisation representatives.
This aroused enough interest for WWF to be invited to put its case to
the European commissioner responsible for the environment, Ritt
By the end of 1997, the environment committee of the parliament chose to
go ahead with an initiative report on EDCs - quite a coup as each
committee is limited in the number of reports it may produce under its
Meanwhile, a campaign by Greenpeace on a related issue - the health
risks of plastic softeners called pthalates that can leach out of PVC
toys into babies’ mouths - helped add momentum to WWF’s efforts. WWF
also briefed parliamentary intergroups (working parties) on health and
The environment committee eventually came to the conclusion that under
the ’precautionary principle’, action should be taken to control the use
The parliament voted in favour of its report last October and the
commission has begun drawing up a strategy paper on EDCs, which should
appear later this year.
What is not yet clear is whether the commission will seek to amend
existing regulation on toxic substances or introduce brand new
legislation. The latter would be more time-consuming and complicated,
but is the outcome favoured by WWF as being more likely to deal with the