We are delighted to welcome Judith Wedel as our occasional correspondent from Brussels. She is a sociologist and journalist and she will keep us updated on the latest trends from Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany. Her focus is on political developments with regards to business, social and environmental issues. In her first blog she shares her insights about how monitoring EU institutions has become a growth industry for Europe
After some years abroad we’re back to Brussels – the European melting pot. The unofficial European Capital doesn’t offer an easy welcome initially. The sky above the city seems to be stuck in shades of grey, public administration often appears somewhat Kafkaesque and signposting is not a Belgian strength. It takes a lot of patience, effort and tenacity to find your way around. Skills you also need when working in the surroundings of the European Institutions.
Behind the walls of dozens of office buildings occupying the streets around Rue de la Loi and Rue Belliard thousands of civil servants and politicians are busy working on European legislation and procedures in many different policy areas. Some are regulations and directives, others are “only” recommendations and opinions. Some are binding, others are not. Some apply to all EU countries, others to just a few. Whatever guise they might come in, they typically affect businesses and industries; the Single European Market is THE economic tool that establishes EU-wide rules and regulations. Some of these rules and regulations also apply to manufacturers abroad, e.g. when it comes to quality standards of products to be sold within the EU.
It’s almost impossible for outsiders to understand every detail of what is happening behind the walls of European bureaucracy, so more and more enterprises are ready to pay for information. That does not necessarily mean that they bribe policy makers – although this might happen. But they do pay others to gather news about legislative acts even before they are publicly announced. Why? Because if you know what a document will contain before your competitors do – and sometimes one little word can have a huge impact – you may be able to react faster and seize some market advantage. But there’s a huge terrain to keep an eye on. Commercially valuable material comes from many different EU commission departments, including agriculture, competition, consumer affairs, energy, environment, fiscal affairs, health, the single market and trade.
Thus, monitoring the EU institutions has become a multi-billion Euro market. It’s a market with lots of room for new business models. For example, one company with its origins as a German press agency built a constantly updated web portal covering a vast variety of political areas, giving relevant insights for all kind of stakeholders. Joachim Weidemann, whose team has set up dpa Insight EU a year ago, has already successfully attracted some 500 companies, institutions, political parties, NGOs, and media. Currently dpa Insight EU operates in Brussels, offering content in English and German, with a sister project APA Insight EU running in Austria. As next steps, Weidemann has plans to expand his service to Scandinavia, and by co-operating with other national news agencies he also wants to attract more clients from the UK and Ireland.
Weidemann points out in a GT interview the advantage of being a journalist in Brussels when it comes to research: “You are allowed to talk to everybody, aiming at multi-source background stories,” with no restrictions – and you are not obliged to blow the cover of your source. Journalists are invited to off-the-record discussions and to meet politicians, policy makers and representatives from industry. It’s privileged access – and an advantage compared to competitors on the information market.
While dpa Insight EU emphasizes that it is an independent content provider and underlines its objectivity and journalistic approach, other companies – lobby firms – are hired by various stakeholders precisely because they have special interests in EU legislation. These firms try to influence policy makers to decide in favor of their clients’ interests. However, the lion’s share of the work of Brussels-based lobby firms still revolves around the more basic monitoring of EU institutions, accounting for an estimated 60 to 70% of their activities. Considering the money these Brussels public affairs agencies make – an estimated €1.5 billion to €3 billion a year overall – companies obviously consider that information gathering is a smart investment.
Professional Brussels lobbyists, of course, have expertise in everything regarding the European Union: Knowledge about the spider’s web of institutions, proficiency in policy making procedures and an address book bursting with useful contacts. This is how you get relevant information and relevant – including internal – documents. You need to understand where to find the piece of information your client needs. Do you target a high ranking representative? A lower-level EU official? A member of an “expert group”? Or maybe somebody from a University that has conducted an assessment for the European Commission?
There’s no doubt that you need special experience to find your way through this web. But you also need to know how to filter the information you get. In recent years it has become easier to access papers and internal communications from EU institutions. Some observers even talk about “information overkill,” suggesting this is occasionally used by officials to cause public confusion. In fact, credible sources suggest that leaks seem to have become part of the (unofficial) practice of the EU institutions. Leaking political information, e.g. to the press, offers the opportunity to get indirect feedback on planned legislation from citizens, businesses and other relevant groups. It’s a way of opening a channel to external stakeholders without inviting them officially to give their opinion – the journalists interview the stakeholders, so officials need only read the newspaper. Such leaks may even turn around political decisions or reshape legislative proposals by starting a public debate among interested stakeholders – whether intended or not.
However, digging for data is not just about businesses getting ahead or lobbyists helping their clients’ causes. Some of the “red hot” information out there attracts intelligence services from all over the world, seeking for example to know more about EU foreign policy or NATO interests. Alain Winants, the head of Belgium’s state security service, the VSSE, has suggested that the EU capital has more spy activity than almost any other city in the world. Several hundreds of foreign intelligence agents are busy spying for their home countries in Brussels, according to Winants. The biggest topics of interest are generally science/technology and economics, with the EU’s energy policies also attracting plenty of intelligence focus from abroad – both from the “usual suspects” as well as other countries.
It’s a murky world, digging for data in the “secret EU.” But it is one into which many organizations are delving. The question is how your business can effectively – and legally and ethically – stay up to date on relevant information? While a “007” for EU affairs may sound attractive, it’s probably best to play by the rules!
Investing in Information
dpa Insight EU
EU-capital is spy-capital