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Agendas for Change

This year the ECPA’s Annual Conference takes place under the shadow of the continuing argument about the regulation of lobbying in the European Union. We will be discussing this in the context of our debate on the findings from this year’s State of Public Affairs Questionnaire. We will however continue to be true to our mission to “record, analyse and improve the conduct of public affairs” by examining how we may improve the effectiveness of public affairs practice by the integration of public affairs both horizontally and vertically. We have two new studies of how to influence global political processes. For those of you unable to attend the Conference, we will be posting all the speakers’ presentations on our eventblog at Blogactiv (http://ecpa.blogactiv.eu).

Early returns from the Questionnaire show overwhelming support for the ECPA/SEAP/EPACA initiative calling for a simple, transparent “one stop shop” approach to regulation. They also reveal the amount of time spent by public affairs practitioners other than in direct meetings with the European Commission or the European Parliament. Not surprisingly a great deal of time is spent in the Comitology process and in interacting with EU Agencies. Time is clearly also spent with the Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of Regions.

The truth of course is that a lot of public affairs effort rationally goes into lobbying the Member States, both in Brussels and in national capitals. It is here that the limitations of the current Brussels focused debate become most apparent. Surely the correct focus should be European public affairs not Brussels public affairs? It may come as a surprise to those who live in the European Quarter, but there are more ways of contacting decision makers than appearing in their Brussels offices.

This debate should be about more than who gets a pretty badge! Everyone agrees that the Council is not transparent, but they also agree that it is the most important of the institutions in terms of legislative outcomes and policy formation. We need some serious thought in the coming weeks about how to overcome the reluctance of member states to meet the standards of transparency expected of the Commission and Parliament. For those who have not yet completed the Questionnaire, it can still be accessed via the ECPA website at http://www.publicaffairs.ac .

The conduct of lobbying in the EU is not currently a major matter of public concern. This however was not the case in the United States in the mid-term elections in 2006. On that occasion a large percentage of voters indicated that their choices had been determined by the public affairs scandals around Abramoff and a general sense of sleaze in Washington.

On a recent visit to DC, I touched base with Doug Pinkham, the President of our sister organisation, the Public Affairs Council. He reports a dramatic drop in those listing the conduct of public affairs as a major determinant of voting. While it is true that Congress has enacted the new legislation in this area, I do not believe that the issue has vanished from the public mind.

Indeed I think it is one of the underlying factors leading to the likely choice of McCain and Obama as the standard bearers of their parties in the November elections. Both of them have been campaigners for openness in the US system, not that this will protect either of them from journalists determined to prove that they have shady public affairs links.

I visited five states during my trip and was in California for Super Tuesday. The polling station that I visited was alive with first time voters, keen to cast their vote. Everywhere I went I found a profound distaste for George W Bush and the current Administration, even among the Republican stalwarts. Surprisingly, for an electorate that is often immune to international attitudes, I found a genuine questioning of where America has gone wrong in the last seven years. There is a fundamental re-assessment of what it means to be an American going on. It was refreshing to find that this was led by real people voting rather than by the pundits and the traditional deployers of big bucks.

Of course every Presidential Primary is a soap opera, but this year’s campaign has been something else. There is something about the personal drama of this race. The extraordinarily complex interaction of colour, race and gender has come down to decisions about how Obama and McCain make individual Americans feel. Obama in particular has found the language to make Americans feel good and clean about themselves. Barrack Obama is of course the ultimate politician’s politician. He combines the eloquence and presence that we all yearn for, with a quiet sense of certainty that politics is about changing lives rather than just a game.

I have long believed that it is this sense of involvement with personalities which is missing from the European system. I do not believe that the EU is ready for a directly elected president. However I do think that we could cheer up the European Parliament elections by getting the European Political Parties to run primary elections to select their candidate for President of the European Commission. The result could be determined by the winner of the largest number of votes in the European elections. Think of the joys of a primary season starting in the five smallest states in January 2009, with four further rounds every two weeks. This would be a much better way of involving voters in Europe than by confronting them with fully fleshed out treaties in Referenda.

We still have some places available on Inside Brussels X: Public Affairs in the New Europe programme which we are teaching on 15th & 16th April. Register on-line at http://www.publicaffairs.ac

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