FOCUS: EUROLOBBYING - Muscling in on the action in Brussels. As the new foundations of the European Parliament are cemented into position, the time is ripe for NGOs to create their own niche within the structure. By Robert Gray

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.

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

favour.



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

professional advice.



’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

affair.



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

Venables.



’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

NGOs.



’MEPs are much more accessible for the NGOs than the Commission,’ says

Ernst.



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

commission.



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

way.’



It has been estimated that there are some 10,000 lobbyists in

Brussels.



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

McVeigh.



’The higher the turn-out, the more credibility it gives the

parliament.’



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

case agriculture.



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

Bjerregaard.



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

own initiative.



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

consumer affairs.



The environment committee eventually came to the conclusion that under

the ’precautionary principle’, action should be taken to control the use

of EDCs.



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

threat effectively.



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