The number of non-state actors has steadily increased over the past decades along with the opportunities they have to influence policymaking in the European Union (EU). Non-state actors comprise entities that are not directly linked to the government of a state, such as corporations, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), religious groups, transnational diaspora communities, and citizens. Non-state actors which aim to impact political outcomes can be broadly defined as interest groups, including businesses, NGOs and civil societies. For the purposes of this paper, the term interest group will be used in lieu of non-state actors. European institutions are open to the involvement of interest groups in policy making, as their input can increase the democratic legitimacy of the EU. For this reason, there are several access points available for interest groups to penetrate the decision-making process. This paper will argue that interest groups have numerous ways of accessing the EU policymaking process. First, this essay will outline key elements of theoretical debates concerning the impact of interest groups in the EU. Next, a few examples of interest groups participating in the EU policymaking process are highlighted, along with a crucial evaluation of their effectiveness.
Concept for protest, revolution, conflict. (2022). [Illustration]. Freepik.
The policymaking process of the EU is facilitated by the institutional structure. The main actors in the EU policymaking process are the European Commission (EC), the European Parliament (EP) and the Council of the EU. Accordingly, interest groups are able to participate in policymaking by establishing formal and informal relations with the institutions associated with the EU. It is worth noting that some actors, for example, large businesses (such as Facebook or Apple), or even citizens, may individually access and effectively influence the policymaking process. While it is beyond the scope of this paper, it should be highlighted that even though interest groups have several opportunities of accessing the policymaking process, they are not always successful in securing a concrete policy outcome.
Illustration of people with justice and order. (2022). [Illustration]. Freepik.
Formal ways to participate in EU policymaking can include open consultations organised by the EC and the European Citizens’ Initiative, public opinion surveys, in the Citizens’ Dialogues and Citizens’ Consultation. Open consultations are meant to gather a range of views from interested parties, in order to contribute to decision-making. Nonetheless, there is no requirement to conduct open consultations when formulating a legislative proposal. Through the European Citizens’ Initiative, one million citizens from at least seven member states may gather together, through online petitioning, to request the EC to submit a legislative proposal. This represents a direct way for citizens to access the EU policymaking process, which seems remarkable at a first glance, yet the drawbacks need to be considered. First, there is a 12-month limit to collect the one million signatures, even though this threshold has been extended recently due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Second, the EC is not obliged to initiate the legislative process even if the signatures have been collected in due time. Thus, it can be argued that the European Citizens’ Initiative is only partly successful. Nevertheless, there are increasing opportunities for individual citizens to participate in EU policymaking, which is a significant improvement. Notably, the recently launched Conference on the Future of Europe brings together European citizens to discuss different topics (e.g., climate change, health, digital transformation) with the aim of developing concrete policies. This initiative is ongoing, and it is jointly organized by the EC, the EP, and the Council of the EU.
Activists at protest meeting. (2022). [Illustration]. Freepik.
Additionally, there are also informal channels to access EU institutions, such as the intergroups in which interest groups meet members of the EP, regardless of the party, to advocate for specific causes. Similarly, interest groups may meet with EC officials on an informal basis; some NGOs attempt to meet with Member State representatives outside of meetings in order to share their perspectives. Interest groups can also contact national ministries of the member states. Nonetheless, the informal channels are not always fruitful as they involve a high degree of uncertainty. For example, obtaining meetings with representatives of Member States, who are part of the Council of the EU, can depend on the political constraints they face.
By way of conclusion, this paper has underscored both the formal and informal channels for various groups to input into the EU policymaking process. Having access to decision-makers is certainly a step in the right direction, but without formal regulations that mandate consultations with interest groups, the influence they can exert is limited and discrepancies in areas of issue prevail. Opportunities available to participate in policymaking should be analysed not only in light of accessibility but also in terms of effectiveness to exercise influence over the output.
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Activists at protest meeting. (2022). [Illustration]. Freepik. https://www.freepik.com/free-vector/activists-protest-meeting-crowd-people-with-placards-standing-together-flat-vector-illustration-protesters-society-concept_10606150.htm#query=democracy&position=1&from_view=search
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