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Measuring interest group access to EU policy makers: what a difference a decade makes

Ten years ago this week, in May 2010, I moved to Brussels for the first time. I went there to do research for my doctoral thesis, because I wanted to understand how EU interest groups got access to information. I wanted to be in Brussels to go beyond what was accessible on EU websites at the time, which was improving but still relatively limited. But a lot has happened in a decade.

Today, the availability of information and data is much better, and I explain in a new series of videos how to find information on EU lobbying and interest group access on EU websites.

I have produced these videos because I’m teaching an M.A. seminar on EU lobbying this summer term. This week, there is a class on “How to measure access?“, which ranges  from looking at available official websites and datasets (i.e. what’s in the videos) to Camilla  Nothhaft’s 2017 PhD-thesis that employs ethnographic methods to study lobbying.

In doing the video recordings and going through EU websites again, I realized how much has changed between the time when I arrived in Brussels in 2010 and now.

Having worked with and for the Transparency International EU Office in various capacities between 2010-14, I was actually part of the group of civil society activists who fought for the availability of such information and data. And yet, it’s still amazing to see what type of research you can do today that was not possible in 2010.

Take the 2019 JCMS article “Organizing Transmission Belts: The Effect of Organizational Design on Interest Group Access to EU Policy‐making” (open access) by Adrià Albareda and Caelesta Braun and this single paragraph (p.475):

Those of you who have been reading my blog for the past decade will remember my 2011 blog post on why having a downloadable database of EU expert groups would be great for research. (I’m just kidding, you probably don’t remember that but I do.) The network visualization that I did for this blog post mirrors network visualizations I would later do in my doctoral thesis with data from EU fisheries policy expert groups and regional advisory councils.

So when Albareda & Braun write that they “downloaded” the European Commission expert group register—which you can do here—back in January of 2015, this would not have been possible in 2010 or 2011 when I was looking at EU expert groups for my own research.

As an activist with Transparency International in Brussels, I then had my first meeting with an EU Commission official working on the expert group register in May 2011. So that was quite exactly nine years ago. Back then, I tried to convince them to make the database downloadable, which technically was not possible at the time, so nothing happened at first.

Then, in January 2012, I received a first database version of the expert group register through a freedom of information request. Here is the spreadsheet with the expert group register database as of 30 January 2012 that I got access to back then.

After some more convincing and advocacy, the downloadable expert group database that you can find online today finally became available in April 2013. At that time, I was working on the final first draft of my PhD thesis with no time for additional research, so had to hope that others would make use of the data—and that is exactly in the way Albareda & Braun did in their article.

The second type information on EU interest group access used by Albareda & Braun—meetings of EU Commissioners and their cabinets with EU interest groups—also was not available when I started my PhD research. And it only became available after I had left Brussels six years ago.

During my activism time, which was during the Barroso II Commission, any attempt to get to a point where these EU Commission meetings would be published was impossible. But the 2014 review of the EU Transparency Register (TR) opened the door for such data availability.

For years, but in particular during the TR review process of 2013-14, many NGOs and interest groups participating in the consultation process—including TI-EU where I was working at the time—had tried to convinced EU Commission and EU Parliament to introduce the possibility to create “incentives” for lobby registration. We asked for incentives that would make the EU’s lobby register “quasi-mandatory” because lobby organization would only get access to EU policy makers in exchange for registration.

With the results of the review of the Transparency Register, transparency now became part of the gatekeeping possibilities of the EU institutions: no transparency, no access.

And when the Juncker Commission came into office in November 2014, meetings with high-level Commission officials had not just to be made public but those interest groups wanting to have meetings also had to be on the Transparency Register. The same became true for membership on EU Commission expert groups (I don’t remember when this was introduced, though). As a result, registration in the register increased massively at the time, and so our knowledge of the EU interest group population also grew.

Because of the advocacy of many activists, EU lobbying researchers today have much better access to information and data on EU interest group access, especially to the European Commission.

And because of the open data and linked data advocacy that came with some of us realizing 9-10 years ago how useful data was, the Transparency Register and the Expert Group register are both downloadable.

More than that:

When you go to the Transparency Register today (e.g. to the BEUC entry), you can find linked information there on EU lobbying access of the respective interest group (e.g. BEUC) to variety of arenas an policy makers. Meetings with the Commission are downloadable as PDF right there on the Transparency Register, and the list of expert groups in which an interest group is a member is also there:

So if you are a student interest in studying EU lobbying today, you have many ways of finding and downloading information and data, and in the series of videos I have produced I explain how to actually find some of these.

What is great to see, ten years after I moved to Brussels for the first time and six years after I left for the last time, is that research on EU interest group access is possible today that wasn’t possible a decade ago. Seeing and teaching articles like the one by Albareda & Braun (2019) feels even more meaningful when you can appreciate the progress it represents and that civil society activism has turned into scientific advances in our understanding of EU lobbying and interest groups.

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