AE’s Wednesday columns: EUROPEAN IMPACT by Vania Putatti.

These article have been written during the elaboration of a university paper for the course “The EU and International Relations” thought by Saurugger Sabine at the Free University of Brussels. 

It follows an academic style.

The EU interest groups system

The formation of the European interest group system(s) has been explained through organizational and neo-functionalist theories (Greenwood 1992: 3-4). On the one hand, organizational theories show that interest groups create formations “close” to the decision-making centers in an attempt to influence the legislators (Kirchner 1980: 96-97). On the other hand, neo-functionalist argue that the institutions are willing to assist the emergence and creation of an interest group system (Mazey 1995: 606). This would compensate for the lack of direct contact between European institutions and citizens of member states and contribute to the “spill over” of integration into other domains and sectors (Greenwood 1992: 3). These phenomenon have been partly observed in the European Community since its early stages. While Kirchner (1980) observed that interest groups increased their presence at the Community level as a result of advantages expected from the Community action, Mazey (1995: 606) noted that the European institutions (in particular, the Commission) sustained the formation of European interest groups because they represent an “essential block of a European policy-making system”. The EU institutions helped the creation of many sector federations in the early days of the European Community in support of a functional ‘interest elite’ that would work in parallel with the member states (Mazey and Richardson 1993).

The development of the EU interest group system went hand in hand with the development of the European political system: “the more the EU extended its competencies to the different sectors, the more the European interest groups system expanded in those sectors, in particular there is a linkage between the extent to which Community policies exist in a given sector and the degree of co-operation and integration reached by European interest groups in that sector” (Kirchner 1980: 115).

It is only since the mid-80s that we can really see a boom of interest groups at the EU level. This is the result of the transfer of regulatory competences to the EU contemplated in the treaties’ revisions (Van Schendelen 2007). The introduction of major changes in the EU institutional setting, such as the community method and the internal market, made the multi-level governance system more complex and interest groups evolved distinct resource dependencies and interactions with the related institutions in the policy process. This altered the political nature/structure of domestic interest groups with increased cross-border activity, joint ventures, political alliances and drastically increased the EU level lobbying strategies (Coen and Richardson 2009: 5-7).

Torward elite pluralism?

The most prominent schools on the study of interest group systems are pluralism and (neo)corporatism. These theories provide useful generalizations and a basis for comparative analysis, but, in their pure form, they do not find empirical applications in the EU interest group system (Coen and Richardson 2009). Given that, it looks like the EU system is a sort of mix between pluralism and corporatism. Indeed a number of authors that were usually associated to neo-corporatism have put forward several pluralist hypotheses concerning the EU interest representation, while those who were associated with (neo)pluralism formulated quasi-corporatist hypotheses (Greenwood 1992: 4-5).

Indeed, while both pluralism and corporatism are not fully applicable to the EU lobbying system, a number of meso-level approaches have focused on the inclusiveness of groups at the sub-system levels that can help us to better understand the EU interest representation. In particular, those that study the distinction between insider and outsider lobbyists. It has been argued that the Commission guided the formation of a core of insiders with privileged access to the decision-making (Broscheid and Coen 2007: 348). As a result, we observe “an elite pluralist system in the form of forums to which access is generally restricted to a few policy players, for whom membership is competitive and strategically advisable” (Coen and Richardson 2009: 49).

Information and access

Scholars agree that the main elements of scarcity for the Commission and the Interest groups are respectively: information (Mahoney and Baumgartner 2008: 1266) and access (Bouwen 2002).

Information is needed from the Commission to fulfill its legislative and executive duties. At the same time, the Commission cannot produce information because its an “underresourced” institution (Van Schendelen 2007: 68). Consequentially, the Commission is dependent on external actors for the procurement of information (Pferrer and Salancik 2003).

In exchange for information, the Commission provides access. The Commission organizes access through an extensive use of committees. The outcomes of these committee meetings are not binding for the Commission. However, there is no doubt of the great influence of these committees during the policy development phases. They provide substantial input during the early stages of the policy process and are therefore crucial access points for private interest to influence the EU decision-making process (Bouwen 2002).

The EU Commission demands information due to its organizational features, and supply of access, offering to the groups the opportunity to be involved in the decision-making process and to obtain advanced knowledge on EU contracts or grants (Coen 1997: 98). The result of this exchange creates elites of interest groups that have access to the Commission.

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