While it is very easy to fall into an 'us and them' mentality about lobbying the EU, it is important to realise that civil society groups are an integral and recognised part of the EU legislative process. Such consultation is required by the Treaty of Lisbon (Article 11 TEU):
"1. The institutions shall, by appropriate means, give citizens and representative associations the opportunity to make known and publicly exchange their views in all areas of Union action.
2. The institutions shall maintain an open, transparent and regular dialogue with representative associations and civil society.
3. The European Commission shall carry out broad consultations with parties concerned in order to ensure that the Union's actions are coherent and transparent. "
Before making legislative proposals, the Commission must be aware of new situations and issues developing in Europe and it must consider whether the EU legislation is the best way to deal with them. That is why the Commission consults with and is in constant touch with external parties when elaborating its policies, including particularly civil society groups, including NGOs and other organisations.
The very objective of consultation is to ensure that interested parties are heard properly in the policy-making process. Consultation with stakeholders at an early stage of policy shaping helps to improve the policy outcome and at the same time enhances the involvement of interested parties and the public at large - it is also the best time for an NGO with a limited budget to get involved in the legislative process. Consultation of interested parties thus complements the process of policy shaping.
Are NGOs listened to in Brussels?
NGOs are at least as influential in Brussels as trade associations and businesses. The European Commission, in particular, actually gives preferential treatment to NGOs in terms of access. NGOs have easier access both to officials and to funding than do businesses, and officials find it easier to be support events organised by NGOs. This is largely because NGOs are non-selfish in their aims. On the other hand, the ease of access tends to promote fragmentation amongst NGOs, and it also means that some economic interests have opted to call themselves NGOs rather than trade associations.
Does an NGO need to be accredited?
In its consultation policy the Commission applies the principle of openness. Everybody must be able to provide the Commission with input. Therefore, there is no general accreditation system for interest groups, either for the Commission or the other major institutions. However, in order to improve transparency in its relations with interest representatives, the Commission has set up a voluntary register for interest representatives, and being part of this register is something all NGOs should consider if they aim to be transparent.
Consultation in different policy sectors and institutions
Almost all Commission Directorates-General have contacts with civil society and other interested parties in their respective fields. The Commission works in a decentralised manner and its different services are responsible for their own mechanisms of dialogue and consultation.
Interested parties are consulted through different tools, such as Green and White Papers, communications, consultation documents, advisory committees, expert groups and ad-hoc consultations. Consultation via the Internet is common practice. Often, consultation is a combination of different tools and takes place in several phases during the preparation of the proposal.
Similarly, the other institutions have their own methods of interfacing with civil society, from the formal (the Economic and Social Committee) to the informal (MEP-NGO contacts).
Organisation of NGOs in Brussels
On the other hand, something that may come as a surprise to campaigners from civil society is the extent to which NGOs themselves are organised in Brussels. While there are, obviously, a huge number of NGOs seeking to be heard in Brussels, there is also a series of European level umbrella groups and an overarching platform for NGOs called the Civil Society Contact Group, which covers 432 NGO associations and is structured in eight sectors.
Other Civil Society Groups
In its broadest sense, civil society includes all non-government actors, and in addition to the NGOs, civil society is represented by:
- the trade unions, organised into ETUC, the European Trade Union Confederation
- European trade associations
- representation of particular businesses in Brussels
The landscape of lobbying in Brussels is therefore a fairly diverse one, and it can be useful to compare the differences in style and perceived effectiveness of the different types of groups attempting to influence policy in the EU.