Sunday

24th Mar 2019

Opinion

EU-funded lobbyists - why do they exist?

  • The European Commission is often accused that it lacks democratic legitimacy. As a result, it tries to compensate by giving grants and a megaphone to certain groups who claim to speak "on behalf of [European] citzens". (Photo: European Commission)

The European Commission, most recently its DG Environment, has just released a report on the latest round of funding for "European environmental NGOs".

But think about it: Why does the EU's executive need to give taxpayers' money to any activist group at all?

Read and decide

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  • Why does the EU's executive need to give taxpayers' money to any activist group at all? (Photo: Kamyar Adl)

Make no mistake: all NGOs, private businesses and citizens must be heard to make their case in the policy-making process and it's up to the EU institutions to work out the policy they want to adopt.

The question, however, is about funding. Even if you support the idea of "government-funded non-governmental organisations", on what basis does the European Commission decide which NGO to give money to, or whether to fund an NGO over a private business because it speaks from a "moral" standpoint?

Such funding restrictions should affect NGOs that fall under the scope of the Joint Transparency Register and whose primary activity is advocacy.

EU funded EU lobbyism

There is a strong case to give public support to civil society organisations involved in EU enlargement, development policies or scientific discussions, but funding activist groups whose primary, and sometimes only, mission is to lobby EU policy makers and stakeholders is not justified.

Similarly, while private companies get public money for research, infrastructure or consulting works, they would never be given funding for their lobby activity.

The European Commission is often accused of lacking democratic legitimacy. As a result, it tries to compensate by giving grants and a megaphone to certain groups who claim to speak "on behalf of [European] citzens".

But when did I, as a European citizen, ask these groups to speak on my behalf?

At the heart of this approach is a flawed belief that business groups are too powerful, have unlimited budgets and skew the decision-making to the detriment of the under-staffed, under-sourced "public interest" NGOs.

The "input metrics" measured by Transparency International, i.e. the number of meetings with senior officials, will always show that the corporate world has lobbied heavily and civil society is underrepresented.

Business less successful

Why not rather look at the outcome or the impact of those meetings?

Not many studies have been done on this topic, but one that surely stands out is a two-year long Intereuro research, published on the London School of Economics blog, showing that "business actors are less successful than citizen groups at lobbying EU legislators".

Moreover, it's nonsense to label NGOs "right" because of the public interest they claim to represent, and private interests "wrong" simply because of their partiality or "profit motive".

Private companies create jobs, spend on innovation, pay a significant amount of taxes - all of which are "public interests" after all.

There is no rationale for financing issue-advocacy NGOs that lobby the very same European institutions that give them money.

It's undemocratic and skews the policy debate, often to the detriment of the real representatives of the public good.

Andras Baneth is the managing director of the Public Affairs Council's European office. He writes in his personal capacity.

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