“No time for business as usual” for the European Commission

Last week the European Commission published its Work Programme for 2016, detailing the legislative activity it plans to undertake in the next year. As usual, the publication resulted in a flurry of activity in public affairs agencies and all those working in anything remotely connected to the Eurobubble. Summaries had to be swiftly prepared, annexes to be pored over, the most relevant information fished out and sent to clients. But client-specific work aside, the Work Programme reiterated a trend that will have wider repercussions for the public affairs industry.

Evident throughout the announcement was the need to do less but more efficiently and effectively. The focus was once again on “being big on the big things, and better in how we deliver them, and remaining small and modest on small things which do not require common EU action”. And indeed, for the second year in a row, the Commission will put forward 23 legislative proposals, seemingly focusing more energy on reviewing the performance of existing laws, withdrawing proposals going nowhere and modifying existing pieces of legislation.

This tendency for doing less and delivering work of a higher quality, also envisaged in the Better Regulation Agenda, adopted in May, is likely to substantially affect the public affairs industry and those seeking to influence EU rule-making in some way or another.

Lobbying in the age of “quality over quantity”

First of all, this means that it is now more important than ever to advise clients to get involved as early in the legislative process as possible. The Commission is now looking much more closely at consulting with interested parties early on, conducting more in-depth impact assessments and a robust quality control of all pieces of legislation it is working on.

It follows logically that establishing clients as responsible stakeholders, a practice which has always been crucial in public affairs campaigns, is now even more important than before. While securing meetings with officials is usually a pretty straightforward process, it will eventually be the most professional players, which demonstrate an understanding of the Commission’s policy priorities and engage constructively with them, that will be taken more seriously.

The need for legislation that will stand up to closer scrutiny means that the most astute of public affairs practitioners can now more easily delay or even derail an unwanted proposal. Officials are under increasing pressure to deliver high quality legislation that will be voted on with the minimum fuss and this means that they seek the widest possible level of stakeholder agreement before finalising their proposals. Public affairs practitioners can leverage that to highlight legitimate doubt around a proposed piece of legislation, for example raising questions on its technical feasibility, emphasising that this is likely to generate problems in the proposal further down the road.

On the flipside, proposing new legislation now becomes more difficult, as a really convincing case needs to be made for the Commission to undertake action on a new topic. One is more likely to achieve that result by keeping a close eye on the review of legislation (Regulatory Fitness Check-REFIT comes to mind) and identify potential opportunities for linking topics of interest to these processes.

In the immediacy, this drastically increases the need for stakeholders to devote more and high quality resources in monitoring, intelligence gathering and general “homework”, if they are to successfully influence EU policy-making.

It is a “brave new world” out there of quality over quantity. Public affairs players need to up their game accordingly and adapt to the new reality or, in the words of the Commission’s Work Programme it is “No time for business as usual”.