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American Chamber EU Panel Says: Complexity of the EU Decision-Making Hinders Public Affairs

by Geraint Edwards, FiscalNote

Insights from a panel discussion addressing public affairs in a changing environment

The American Chambers of Commerce to the European Union (AmCham EU) recently hosted a plenary panel discussion in Brussels on ‘public affairs in a changing environment’, with a keynote speech after the panel from the Deputy UK Ambassador to the EU, bringing together senior public affairs professionals from more than 30 US major corporations.

Panelists Daniel Guéguen (EPPA), Erika Mann (Covington) and Geraint Edwards (FiscalNote) took part in a discussion moderated by Jessica O'Flynn (First Solar) on how recent developments such as the EU elections, digitalization or the increased use of secondary legislation has and will further impact the public affairs profession in Brussels.

During their introductory remarks the panel were asked their views on how public affairs in Brussels had evolved over the last 20 years, and the impact of the legislature.

5 Takeaways on EU Decision-Making:

  1. Complexity of the EU decision-making hinders public affairs - The panel felt that that EU decision-making had become increasingly opaque, complex, and technical. This complexity made public affairs approaches increasingly difficult, with purely technical arguments no longer enough, and too many decisions reached behind closed doors. There was also a tendency to underestimate national influence and overestimate the Commission’s role.
  2. More information is available but the human touch still matters - The panel also highlighted the impact of digitalization on public affairs. While new technologies had become more ubiquitous, and more information was now available, there were still considerable challenges to ensure the accuracy and relevance of information.  The opacity of decision-making made contact with decision-makers essential, although the reliability of information was debatable, particularly on politically charged issues.   
  3. Trialogue negotiations do not provide enough transparency - Some members of the panel felt that the EU needed to reform its decision-making processes. They highlighted the problems posed by closed door compromises on legislative files, so called “trialogue negotiations” and the lack of transparency over the adoption of EU secondary legislation (regulation), which the EU has come to increasingly rely upon.
  4. Mixed progress on transparency - One member of the panel felt that the EU had made some limited efforts to boost the transparency of its decision-making process. The same member of the panel felt there was a growing political impetus amongst some EU Member States to make changes to address this lack of transparency. However, the other panelists felt that the changes that had been made since 2010 had been limited and insufficient and would never be far-reaching enough.    
    1. Asked how the Parliament had managed to balance the need for transparency, it was pointed out that the Parliament was in part responsible for holding up transparency reforms. The impact of the GDPR on public affairs was also raised by one panellist, with concerns that recent events had raised question marks about the legality of stakeholder mapping.
  5. Issue-based project management approach could help - A number of attendees sought the panel’s view and what approach should be taken towards public affairs in the future. The panel agreed that an issue-based project management approach, as that pursued by AmCham was the best approach, with the panel also underlining the need to act early in the process and not neglect the national level. One panel member encouraged professionals to make full use of next generation issues management platforms to save time and allow resources to be dedicated to outreach.

An attendee asked the panel's view on how transparency should be defined, and what could be done at a practical level. The panel broadly agreed that at a very minimum the EU needed to harmonize its approach, and systematically make key decision-making documents publicly available as well as streamlining legislative processes.

While the panel was confident that the Commission President would be confirmed by the European Parliament later that day (which did transpire, albeit only by 9 votes). The panel was less certain about if or when the UK would leave the EU. One panelist believed that it would not happen, another believe that it would take place by 31 October, another believing that it would probably happen but not without further delay.

Geraint Edwards is Head of Policy at FiscalNote Europe