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Editor’s blog: In praise of Brussels lobbyists

The most effective way to kill off a European Union law is to throttle it in its cradle, writes Justin Stares.

This is where lobbyists earn their money; they know the approximate contents of an upcoming law when it’s just a twinkle in the eye of a Brussels official.

The best lobbyists work so far ahead it would surprise you. You can guarantee that the alcoholic drinks industry, for example, will take a good look at the c.v. of the Brussels Commissioner with responsibility for health before he or she has even received the backing of the European Parliament. The first question will be, somewhat ironically: what nationality? A potentially puritanical Swede is bad news, a life-loving Italian, good. If the candidate-commissioner has a worrisome background, it might be time to start lobbying against him already – before he has even started work.

So it goes with individual laws, too. Lobbyists will cosy up to key officials in the European Commission just so as to be able to know what is going on; so they can be the first to inform their client of trouble on the horizon.

If it is too late stop the official putting pen to paper, the lobbyist will try to pull rank. Big guns will be pulled in – company executives – and the official’s boss will be approached, or perhaps the boss’ boss.

If this doesn’t work, government favours will be called in. Euro MPs are little more than an annoyance to the Commission, but if a member state minister can be mobilised, that’s a different matter.

If the Commission’s directorate-general cannot be persuaded of the wrong of its ways, the best lobbyists will approach the Commission’s secretary general: the secretive nerve centre where many  key Brussels decisions are taken. If the secretary general or her staff are on your side, they can easily veto a draft directive via the impact assessment board – a body with the power to make purely subjective decisions (and without the requirement to publish them).

A published draft law is therefore something of a failure as far as top lobbyists are concerned. Once launched, there is no choice but to plead with the European Parliament and the Council of Ministers. Corporate Europe Observatory’s revelations regarding the intricate lobbying strategy of the tobacco giant Philip Morris show just how hard lobbyists have to work at this stage if they are to have any impact. It’s not much fun, and the results of any such campaign are notoriously unpredictable.

This is perhaps why discussions over the new European Commission president are so keenly followed in industry. The president cannot chose his or her team, but can allocate portfolios.

Today, long before these decisions are taken, the best lobbyists will be poring over the lists of potential candidates in every member state, alive to the first signs of danger.

It’s a strategic job, and one which if done well takes place entirely in the shadows. Killing off a potentially problematic EU regulation can be worth millions, perhaps tens of millions, to a specific industry or company. That’s why certain lobbyists are so well paid. In many cases, they’re worth the money.

You can follow Justin on Twitter @JustinStares

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