Influencing the European Union Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Influencing the European Union

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The European Union (EU) and its various components can sometimes seem quite intimidating - difficult to contact and remote from the ordinary citizen or small business. Yet it needn't be so - there are many ways for people to contact the various EU institutions these days, and once you've approached the right person in the right way, it can be surprisingly easy to have an effect.

This Entry gives you some tips to get you going in terms of contacting the different European institutions, from the 'how' to the 'who' to the 'when'.

Why might you want to influence the EU? Well, perhaps they are working on a law that you like or do not like; perhaps you have a problem and your national or local authorities are not giving you satisfaction; perhaps you want to work, study or marry across a border within the EU; perhaps you have a company and you have an issue with how your competitors are using their dominant position, or how they are importing goods; perhaps you want to push a particular political line, or you have escaped from a dictatorship and want the EU to put pressure on your dictator...and so on.

You might also want to apply for funding, but that is a specialised process, involving a great deal of jumping through hoops, and is beyond the scope of this Entry.

1. Get Informed

Undoubtedly the cheapest and easiest place to start is on the Internet. The EU's website is apparently the biggest public sector website in the world. There is lots of useful information on it – the trick is knowing where to look. The search facility is OK for general information on a subject, but not so good for finding the latest happenings.

Probably the best way to get up-to-date information is to bookmark the pages of the relevant European Commission units for the subjects you are interested in. For example, the Air Quality Unit of the Directorate-General for the Environment1 has a page - when they run a study or a consultation, or something interesting happens, they update it.

The European Parliament has a good facility if you want to follow a particular piece of legislation. It's called OEIL, and it summarises the various stages, links to the texts, etc. If it's European Court of Justice cases you're after, they have their own site with a search engine and so on.

The general press is unlikely to be much use, as even the quality broadsheets will only give you information when things start to get controversial. This is nearly always too late to be effective in getting anything changed. There is one European newspaper in English2 - European Voice - although you're unlikely to find it in your local newsagent. There are many specialist newsletters, though, for all sorts of topics, and these are excellent sources of hot-off-the-press happenings. Trade magazines can also be good. There are a few good free blogs and independent websites as well. A Fistful of Euros centralises many of these blogs. For a more Eurosceptic bent, OpenEurope is a good port of call. There are some European think tanks that are worth a look as well - the European Policy Centre is one, and the Centre for European Policy Studies is another.

If, after you've tried a few calls and letters, you're still finding it hard to get the information you need, you can always put in an access to documents request, using the applicable legislation. You're guaranteed a reply within two weeks.

2. Get the Right Angle

Think clearly about what you want from the EU in your particular case - unhappy that someone is operating an illegal waste facility, or is destroying a nature reserve near your house? There may well be an infringement of EU environment law, and the European Commission or your MEP (Member of the European Parliament) may well be able to help you. Not happy that you've heard that the EU might regulate your lucrative ground-up snail herbal supplement? By all means complain to the relevant part of the Commission, your national government negotiators, or any MEP that you can get interested.

What is less effective is complaining about something that you read in a tabloid newspaper, complaining about something that is a purely national, regional or local issue, or getting your European bodies confused. If it's your human rights that you think are being breached, then it's the European Court of Human Rights you want, down in Strasbourg. But be warned: it is a common error to get the procedures wrong. You can't get to any form of European Court, whether in Luxembourg or Strasbourg, without going through a national court first. You can't benefit from a new Directive3 until the Member State has had two years to implement it into national law.

Be aware that there are also some pretty good shortcuts available for some things. SOLVIT, for example, allows you to deal with small internal market problems. You move your bicycle to another country, for example, and the local cops don't like your bike trailer, although it was OK in your previous Member State. A few clicks on the website and away you go - they solve most of the problems brought forward in a few months or so, with not a lawyer in sight.

3. Get the Right Institution

Start with the Commission. They have the most technical knowledge, the most language variety, and they are at the origin of anything that happens that might affect you - they have the right of proposal, and they start any court cases for infringements.

Don't hesitate to ring a few people first, to get the right one. Once you have a contact name, ideally at desk officer4 level, everything gets easier. You're not dealing with a large anonymous organisation, you're dealing with a person. Think about where that person is based as well - if you are a farmer, you might have more joy with the Agriculture Directorate-General than the Health and Consumer Directorate-General. If you are a green Non-Governmental Organisation5 (NGO), you might find Environment more helpful than the Trade people. If it's a major issue, there will be different people working on it from different angles.

Once you've got the basic information from the Commission, you can decide what you want and refine your lobbying effort, perhaps using some of the people in the next section.

4. Get Some Help

Generally, the only way to have an effective concrete impact on an EU issue, just as for a national or regional issue, is to complain about a concrete problem. Most of the nature protection cases taken up by the Commission stem from citizens and NGOs taking photos of damage, putting together a dossier and sending it in. With a minimum of organisation, one person can have a significant impact. Similarly, many illegal acts by companies in areas such as competition6 and trade (illegal dumping7) are notified by competitors.

Influencing laws on your own is harder. There are a few examples where this has succeeded: Georgina Downs, the self-styled pesticide nun, had an impact on the revision of the EU pesticide rules, from an operation that was essentially run off her snooker table. You can certainly sign a call for action, and if there are a million of you, you will now have a treaty-defined impact8. The Commission must consider your petition, even if they don't have to agree with you. The European Parliament has a petitions committee, and they look at individual problems, and can call Commission colleagues to ask for their views on a given case. You are also free to respond to any of the many stakeholder9 consultations the Commission puts out. However, unless you are exceptionally lucid, if you don't actually have a stake to hold, your prose is likely to go into the box marked 'other' and that will be the end of it. You can follow all the stakeholder contributions launched by the Commission at the 'Your Europe' page.

Instead, use what is out there already to get more leverage. If you are not happy with the plight of the red-necked phalarope, for example, and think the Birds Directive should be better enforced, then become a member of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) and take it up with them - they have some very smart lobbyists in Brussels. Running a business selling storage tanks, and can't understand the paperwork? The European Storage Tank Association, via your national member, is there to help you.

Write to your MEP - they'll be grateful you've heard of them, and so fairly unlikely to brush you off. Contact your national government, or even your local government - they'll all have people on the ground in Belgium who can help you, these days. For the UK, these people on the ground are UKREP - the Permanent Representation, based just off the Schuman roundabout10. Even if you live outside the EU, your country will have a Mission11.

Finally, you can pay someone to help you, but be careful here as there are some shysters. Dodgy conferences where they reheat what's on the public website, dodgy consultants that sell you the work they've done for another client... Think carefully about what you want a consultant or lawyer for, and try and get one that seems to be active or even specialised in the area you want. This kind of tactic can be effective if you want something reasonably specific and attainable, or if you are a business and can afford to throw some money at the problem, but generally Commission staff would rather hear you out directly. Sometimes your lawyers or consultants may be able to go over the heads of the technical people and lobby their hierarchy, but this can also rapidly backfire - best left as a last resort.

5. Get in Early

This is one of the major problems that the citizen or small business can face when dealing with the EU - they don't hear about the issues that concern them until it is too late. Unfortunately, significant pieces of legislation sometimes only hit the national papers when they are being implemented in your Member State. By then, it is too late to complain about the principle of the measure being taken - at best you could have a marginal effect on the way the measure is implemented.

Generally speaking, the most effective stage at which to lobby legislation is while it is being framed: the first expert and stakeholder discussions, Green Paper12 stage. You can still have some impact in first reading, through the European Parliament or the Council (Member States), but the further on the proposal goes, the less flexible things get.

6. Get to the Point

If you're replying to a stakeholder consultation or making a complaint, the key point to bear in mind is that you are writing to a civil servant. So emotive language is counter-productive, a sneering or otherwise unpleasant tone will obviously not help, and wild assertions are likely to be given the treatment they deserve. Instead, try and accompany your point with facts, data or at least pertinent examples. If you're complaining about the fish in your local river being dead, take some photos. Note down the times and dates of key events, just as you would with any other legal or quasi-legal process.

In addition, try to refine your strategy. It is highly ineffective to say 'I'm a special case - make an exception in your law for me', or to say 'All small businesses should be exempt because we can't handle any extra paperwork'. These strategies fail because they render the original idea ineffective, and the people working to get the law through know this, so they will resist your proposals. What can work better is trying to water things down or beef things up a bit - why have a target when you could have a benchmark, or vice versa? Or to move things, like your business, for example, from one category of the law to another.

7. Get Over the Imaginary Hurdles

Finally, some things do not need to be a problem. Language is one of them. In nearly every part of the Commission, if you ask to speak to someone in English, they will be able to reply. For French, this will be true in most cases, or at least they will be able to pass you to a French-speaking colleague, and for German this will often be possible. Admittedly, for all the other EU languages, it is a lottery - if you only speak Estonian13 you are going to have trouble setting up a meeting to discuss a technical subject, unless by chance the desk officer dealing with that subject happens to be Estonian. In addition, many Internet consultations are only translated into English, French and German, and many information meetings take place in English only. Translation and interpretation costs money and is becoming a scarce resource. However, all EU citizens have the right to write to the Commission in their own language and to receive a reply in that language.

Lack of specialised knowledge is not a hurdle either. You are entitled to set out your own position from your own experience, and using your own words, rather than jargon - remaining factual, relevant and courteous is enough. The administration you are dealing with should be able to take it from there.

In summary, if you know your problem, and are reasonably confident that the EU is the right organisation to help, then it is well worth a go. Electronic advances have made it easier than ever to get the information and to get your view across. If nothing else, the experience may well give you something concrete to base your European Parliament vote on!

1The Commission is basically structured in the following way - Directorate-General (biggest), Directorate (middle), Unit (smallest).2And one or two in French.3A Directive is the EU term for a type of law that allows Member States discretion as to how they implement it.4This is the footsoldier of the Commission - so you will have a desk officer for the Landfill Directive, for example, or one that deals with all public procurement complaints from the UK.5For example, Greenpeace, Oxfam, that kind of thing.6Mergers, abuse of a dominant position - the stuff that Microsoft has had problems with.7Importing goods into the EU at a lower price than cost, basically.8It came in from the Treaty of Lisbon.9Anyone affected by the issue.10Which is the centre of EU activity - the equivalent of Whitehall for the UK civil service.11Like an Embassy, but dealing with an organisation (the EU) rather than a State.12A Green Paper sets the scene, and asks questions about the next steps.13But then you are probably not getting your EU advice from this website.

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