An unbelievable amount of lobbying in Brussels is done through associations and umbrella organisations. These vary from your typical industry associations to the European Youth Council. But how effective are they and is it worth spending money (in the form of membership fee) and energy (you have to attend meetings and give input) or should you simply “ do it yourself”.
Strength through numbers
In my opinion there are certainly some excellent associations and umbrella organisations operating in Brussels. Amongst them I would name COPA-COGECA (representing the European farmers) and BusinessEurope. The European Commission isn’t able to talk with each and every stakeholder when drawing up legislation or policy, so it is better to talk to the representatives from the field, which in turn represent thousands, sometimes millions of persons. Moreover, the aforementioned organizations also have a lot of in-house expertise and organizational capacity so the European institutions can rely on them for input and to create legitimacy Europe wide for policy. Paying for membership of these kind of organizations is worth every penny, and moreover it is also wise to monitor internal developments so you can steer the positions and activities of such “ giants”.
There are however a couple of draw-backs of having your interest represented by umbrella organizations. You should be aware that such umbrella organizations sometimes represent very diverse interest. Consumer umbrella organizations for example have to juggle between the interests of consumers wanting more ease when buying online versus consumers which value privacy more, and thus would like to see barriers to information gathering on the internet. Sometimes these internal conflicts of interest are unbridgeable. What then often happens is that there is a consensus to “agree to disagree” or even worse, the biggest interest within the umbrella organization wins it from the smaller factions. This sometimes has as a perverted result that the umbrella organization to whome you pay a fee to represent your interest becomes a way to block your lobby. You should be aware that this happens in Brussels with some frequency and that from the moment you realize this is happening, you should abort any plans of lobbying through the umbrella association.
The second draw-backs of lobbying though umbrella organizations is that they tend to be a bit slow and sluggish when it comes to reacting to new policy developments. This is because construing official positions requires both internal administrative as well as political agreement. It has happened that umbrella organization were not able to react on time to fast developing policies.
Yes, associations and umbrella organisations DO matter in Brussels. They are often the official spokesperson for industry and civil society towards the institutions. Some Members of Parliaments refuse to talk to smaller actors, opting to talk only to the big organisations that represent them. However, bear in mind that umbrella organisations and associations can sometimes be very slow to react to policy developments, and are sometimes even a blocking power because of internal bickering. if you have the feeling this is the case, dont ever hesitate to start your own lobby.