Advocacy at EU level
Efficient lobbying is based on the knowledge of the structure, procedures, and the decision-making processes within political systems. Therefore, in order to influence the process, it is necessary to understand how procedures work. It is particularly important to understand the co-decision procedure, not only because it is the most common, but also because it offers numerous possibilities for interest groups to influence the European Union’s decisions. Lobbying efforts by interest groups, such as patient organisations, can be effective if you know the where, how and when.
Before the proposal: ideas
Before the legislative procedure can even start, ideas must be found and communicated. For this purpose the European Commission publishes Green and White Papers dealing with the strategic topics handled by the European Union.
If the legislation is going to be adopted under co-decision procedure, the European Commission sometimes involves civil society via public consultations before proposing new legislation. These consultations are not compulsory, but are increasingly used by the Commission in order to receive opinions and technical input from stakeholders.
Drafting the proposal: information
The competent service of the Commission – usually, one or more Units in the Directorate General (DG) responsible by competence, which are then referred to as “chef de file” – begins the drafting stage of a legislative proposal.
The official(s) in charge of the dossier consult experts in the field or rely on studies and reports, frequently contracted out to external consultants. Nevertheless, Commission officials often lack technical and scientific evidence to put together a proposal for legislation, or just do not have enough information in the field. This is why Commission services often appreciate stakeholders bringing them relevant information as it may help them put together the legislative proposal.
At this stage, it can be useful to provide relevant information which may contribute to the development of the proposal. This is also the best moment to put concerns on the table to have them included in the Commission’s draft proposal.
Interservice consultation on the proposal: interests
The draft proposal then goes to “interservice consultation”. Other DGs that have an interest in the proposal are consulted by the DG responsible for drafting it, and may propose modifications to the draft text. This process can be very long, especially when conflicting interests or positions arise between different DGs.
At times, it may be useful to contact other DGs, and not just the “chef de file”, especially if they are more likely to support the interests that you want to defend. For example, DG Health and Consumer Protection (DG SANCO) may be more likely to support the interests of patients in a particular dossier, where DG Enterprise may more readily champion the interests of the pharmaceutical industry.
Adoption of the proposal by the Commission
At the end of the interservice consultation, the proposal goes to the College of Commissioners for the formal adoption of the proposal by the Commission. The College of Commissioners meets every Wednesday. While most of work is done at the DG level, it may happen that certain sensitive, outstanding issues need to be resolved by the Commissioners, who represent the highest political level within the Commission.
The preparatory work of Commissioners’ meetings is carried out by their Cabinets. They have a crucial role in ensuring smooth relations between the competent DG and the competent Commissioner. Cabinets also maintain relations between Commissioners themselves.
For high profile political issues, it may be necessary to establish contact with the Cabinet of the Commissioner competent in the area of the legislative proposal.
Parliament and Council: First reading
Once the proposal is adopted, the Commission submits it simultaneously to the Council and to the European Parliament (EP). Even though the Parliament ends the first reading before the Council, both Institutions start their work in parallel, especially when they aim for a fast-track adoption of the legislation in first reading. This requires an intensive exchange of information, and considerable availability of the Council Presidency for exploratory contacts and negotiations with the European Parliament.
EP Committee work: drafting a report on the proposal
When the European Parliament receives the Commission proposal, it assigns it to a Committee, whose job is to adopt a report on the proposal to be presented at a plenary session of Parliament.
The Committee appoints a “Rapporteur”. The Rapporteur is an MEP (Member of the European Parliament) from the Committee who is in charge of studying the proposal and drafting the Parliament’s report. The choice of the Rapporteur is made along lines of political affiliation, following a procedure based on the number of points allocated to each political group.
“Shadow Rapporteurs” are designated from the political groups not assigned the report. Shadow Rapporteurs are members of the Committee, and their role is to communicate with their respective political groups on the Commission proposal and on the parliamentary report. They also establish the “voting list” for their political group to be used in the plenary session.
Every MEP in the Committee has potential influence over the outcome, as s/he has the power to table amendments to modify the Commission proposal. In practice, however, the greatest influence is wielded by a core group of decision-makers for each dossier, under the scrutiny of Parliament. In any effective lobbying campaign, it is essential to maintain contact with this core group. The core group of decision-makers include the Rapporteur, the Shadow Rapporteurs, and:
- Group Coordinators: MEPs within the Committee who have a coordination role for their political group. Their role sometimes overlaps with the Shadow Rapporteurs, especially in small groups. These political coordinators influence the political group’s position during the debates, and during the voting in Committee and in plenary sessions.
- Group Advisers: permanent staff members of the European Parliament’s political groups, and usually specialise by sector (e.g. social affairs, environment, etc.). They tend to follow the activities of the EP Committee handling affairs in their sector. Because they are “attached” to a certain Committee on a permanent basis, they are in a position to provide the Rapporteur, Shadow Rapporteurs and other MEPs from their group with the necessary advice on the dossiers covered in that Committee. They also draft or help draft the voting list for their group prior to the vote.
- Chairs & Vice-Chairs: may not have a role in the actual decision-making on the dossier, but courtesy requires that they be kept informed. For an effective lobbying campaign, you should always communicate your position to the Chair and Vice-Chairs of the EP Committee.
EP Committee adopts the report: a collection of amendments
Once the Rapporteur is appointed, the work starts. The Rapporteur examines the Commission proposal and drafts a report. Reports are typically a collection of amendments to the proposal, and an explanatory memorandum. Members of the Committee may table additional amendments. All these amendments are discussed during Committee meetings, usually for more than one session.
In parallel to this process, a second, and sometimes a third Committee may be called on to give its opinion on a specific aspect of the proposal. Once the second or third Committee has adopted an opinion, it is added to the report of the main Committee. The report is then voted on.
The Committee votes first on the amendments, one by one. Then it votes on the entire report, and on the legislative proposal as modified by the amendments. The report is adopted when a simple majority of the MEPs attending the meeting vote in favour.
In Committee votes, the number of MEPs attending the meeting can be quite important. If an MEP is not present or leaves the room for a few minutes when the vote takes place, no vote is cast by that MEP. Some amendments are adopted on a very close vote: one vote can change the outcome. On important issues, it may be necessary to ensure that not only a sufficient number of MEPs vote in favour of the amendments that you support, but also that those MEPs actually attend the meeting and are present to express their vote.
Plenary sessions: Parliament adopts the amended proposal
The report as adopted by the Committee goes to plenary. In plenary sessions, the whole Parliament (785 Members) meets to adopt the final position of the Parliament on any given dossier. Plenary sessions usually take place in Strasbourg, and sometimes in Brussels. Normally, debates are scheduled the day before the vote.
MEPs vote on the amendments agreed upon by the Committee (the report) or on amendments tabled in plenary by a political group or by 40 MEPs. Adoption of the report requires a simple majority of the MEPs attending the meeting.
It is more difficult to table amendments during a plenary session than during the Committee stage. During the Committee stage, each MEP can table one or more amendments. But in plenary session, it is necessary to obtain the support of a political group or of a significant number of MEPs. Obtaining this support is possible and happens quite regularly, but it requires more resources and is more time-consuming.
Council adopts the amended proposal or a Common Position
After the vote in Parliament, the amended proposal goes to the Council of the European Union. The Council may:
- Accept in full the outcome of the Parliament’s first reading. In this case, the legislative act is adopted. This outcome is possible when the work of the Council and Parliament has been carried out in parallel and no major disagreements have arisen.
- Not accept the outcome of Parliament’s first reading, and instead adopt a Common Position. This is the most frequent situation. In Common Positions, certain amendments of the Parliament are accepted, while others are rejected.
Decisions in Council are taken first at the Working Group level, then at COREPER (Permanent Representatives Committee) meetings of EU Ambassadors, then by Ministers who formalise the decision. All these meetings are chaired by a representative or a Minister of the country holding the six-month rotating Presidency of the Council.
Under the co-decision procedure, the Council normally votes by a system called qualified majority voting (QMV). Each country has a vote, weighted largely according to its size. An absolute majority is not required. The biggest countries – Britain, France, Germany and Italy – each have 29 votes out of a total of 345. The weighting system is such that having the support of big countries is essential in putting together a favourable majority in the Council.
Lobbying the Council actually means lobbying individual Member State governments. This is because the Council of the EU is made up of Ministers from national governments and is supported by a large staff made up of national civil servants, working both in Brussels (national permanent representations) and in national capitals (Ministries).
EU laws are implemented within each Member State, so in Council each country brings to the table its own concerns about the practicalities of implementation of the proposed text. It is therefore necessary to campaign in tandem at EU and national level. This is often possible to do by contacting national permanent representations in Brussels, who essentially act as liaison between the national capitals and the Council.
It is of primary importance to contact the national delegation that holds the Presidency of the Council. It is best to establish this contact before the nation begins its term as President. The Presidency sets up the agenda of the Council work and prepares compromises for agreements among Member States.
The Council wields the most power of all the European Institutions and yet it is the least known of them. This is probably due to the traditional lack of transparency in Council work. Unlike Parliamentary meetings, Council meetings are not usually public and most of the documents not accessible to the public. This situation is gradually changing and more openness and transparency are being introduced.
Parliament and Council: Second reading
The process is quicker at second reading, as there is a time limit of three months. The first reading may last for many months as there is no time limit.
Parliament’s recommendation on the Common Position
The Common Position goes back to Parliament for second reading. The Rapporteur drafts a recommendation (no longer called a report) amending, approving or rejecting the Council’s Common Position. New amendments can be made in principle but only under specific conditions, which make it difficult for the relevant Committee to pass them. It is common practice to call “trialogue” meetings between Council, Commission and Parliamentary representatives. These are informal, usually closed-door meetings, where often difficult issues and important negotiations are tackled. When agreement can be reached, the Rapporteur proposes a “compromise amendment” resulting from the negotiation between the Council, the Commission and the Parliament.
The relevant Committee votes on the recommendation following the same procedure as in first reading. The recommendation then goes to plenary session. For an amendment to be adopted in plenary in second reading, it must secure the vote of an outright majority of MEPs (393+), not just a simple majority of the MEPs present, as in the first reading.
In second reading it is more difficult to table new amendments and more difficult to get them adopted. A majority of MEPs represents 393 votes in favour of the amendment, whatever the number of MEPs attending. If attendance is poor, it may be difficult to obtain a majority. So it is vital at second reading to secure the votes of as many MEPs as possible, which means gaining the support of many political groups.
Council accepts or rejects the amended Common Position
The amended Common Position is then examined by the Council.
- If the Council accepts all the amendments, the legislative act is adopted.
- If the Council does not accept the amended Common Position, a “Conciliation Committee” is convened.
Parliament and Council: Conciliation
The Conciliation Committee comprises representatives from the Parliament and the Council.
- If agreement is reached within 6 weeks, the legislative proposal is adopted, though a third reading is needed to rubberstamp this agreement.
- If no agreement is reached within 6 weeks, the proposal is definitively rejected and a new Commission proposal is needed to start the process again.
In Conciliation, discussions are narrowed to the outstanding issues on which Council and Parliament could not find agreement in first and second readings. At this stage, the room for influencing the result is very limited.
Crucial factors in successful lobbying
A successful lobbying campaign is multilayered. But there are specific elements that will increase the chances of success.
Establishing and maintaining contacts with MEPs, Commission officials and national permanent representations of the Member States is of primary importance in any advocacy activity in Brussels. Outlining the benefits of a case to each contact will help gain their support. Allies are easier to find when they have a clear idea of the advantage to them of championing our interests.
It is important to provide MEPs in particular with accurate and reliable information that will help them “shine”! They all want to be successful during their term; they all want to be seen – ideally in the press – to have achieved a given outcome. Typical MEP questions are: “What will I get out of it?”, “How do I sell it to my constituency?”, and “What coverage will my amendment being passed get?”
The time factor
It is clear from the information above that any lobbying activity has a decreasing chance of success as the decision making process advances. The sooner you start lobbying, the better.
Persuading an MEP to put forward an amendment to a Commission proposal in first reading can be complicated, but it is feasible and commonly done. On the other hand, it is far more difficult to have a Common Position amended by the Parliament in second reading.
Brussels hosts the world’s largest international press corps. The role of the media is crucial in inter-institutional relations in Brussels and in the relations between lobbying groups and decision-makers. Many interest groups have learned to use the press skilfully and have been able to influence the outcome of lobbying campaigns thanks to media support. NGOs, such as Oxfam, Save the Children and Greenpeace, have gained influence and been supported by media campaigns.
- Have a look at EURORDIS advocacy work: www.eurordis.org
- Get inspiration form NORD’s advocacy activities: http://www.rarediseases.org/advocacy
- Find information on EPF’s website: http://www.eu-patient.eu/Initatives-Policy/