The concept of lobbying in Europe originated in 1215 AD, when King John of England gave the barons the right to petition him to protest any violation of their new rights under the Magna Carta. This right “to petition the government for a redress of grievances” is also the current basis of lobbying in the United States, where lobbying became common practice in the 1830’s. Thus, it can be said that lobbying is originally based on the right to be heard.
From a Political Science point of view, there are essentially two theoretical approaches to lobbying. The first is based on the group theory of politics: a democratic society must use a group process to make political decisions. This will include citizens organised into groups to influence decision-makers. The second approach considers lobbying as an “aspect of the legislative process”.
The European Commission has chosen this second approach and defines as lobbying “all activities carried out with the objective of influencing the policy formulation and decision-making processes of the European institutions.” The Commission also believes that “lobbying is a legitimate part of the democratic system, regardless of whether it is carried out by individual citizens or companies, civil society organisations and other interest groups or firms working on behalf of third parties (public affairs professionals, think-tanks and lawyers).”
If lobbying is defined as the attempt to influence others with facts and arguments, all those involved in EU policy-making lobby each other: Commission staff lobby their service and colleagues to obtain support for specific projects, Commissioners lobby each other to exchange support for draft proposals, Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) lobby each other to negotiate amendments, lobbyists lobby MEPs to modify amendments, and lobbyists lobby each other to create synergies and common positions.
From “lobbying” to “public & government affairs”
Some organisations are uncomfortable with labelling their activities as “lobbying,” as an American survey of US non-profit organisations revealed. Organisations were asked what activities they undertook to influence policy: 29% said they never lobbied, 15% never advocated and 12% never educated. Simultaneously, 86% answered that they did participate in the public policy process.
The negative connotations associated with the word “lobbying” have prompted most lobbyists to use other terms to describe their profession: in Europe the most used term is “public affairs.” Even the European Commission has dropped the term “lobbying” used in its 2006 Green Paper, to become “interest representation” in its Communication establishing a voluntary Register in 2008 and in the current Transparency Register set up in 2011, it is being refered to as “European institutions interaction with citizen’s associations, NGO’s, business, trade and professional organizations, trade unions, think tanks, etc.”.
The word “lobbyist” was first used in Britain to refer to journalists waiting in corridors (lobbies) at the House of Commons, waiting to interview decision makers. In 1829 in the US, the word lobby-agents described privilege-seekers in New York’s capital, Albany. Three years later the abbreviation “lobbyist” became frequently used in Washington.
It took quite some time for the concepts of “lobbying” and “lobbyists” to spread to other European countries. The French media, for example, only started talking about lobbying in the 1980’s, while the Italian media picked up the subject in relation to the “Tangentopoli” affairs in the mid 1990’s.
Lobbyists work for consultancies, for industry, trade bodies or associations, civil society, unions, regions or municipalities and even to defend countries’ interests.
Estimated numbers of lobbyists
There is no precise count of the number of Brussels based lobbyists. However, there are currently more than 11000 registrants in the voluntary Transparency Register, divided into a bit more than 1300 consultancy and law firms, close to 6000 in-house lobbyists and trade associations, over 3000 non-governmental organisations, close to 1000 think-tanks, some 50 religious communities and over 500 local and regional municipalities.