Last Friday Pieter Walraven (Managing Partner) attended a session called ‘Professionalization of legal lobbying’ at the Parliament of Slovenia. Together with, amongst others, Mihael Cigler (Slovenia), Markus Eder (Austria), Dominik Meier (Germany) and Dominique Reber (Switzerland), he discussed the experiences with lobbying regulation in other countries, including the Netherlands.
“We discussed the importance of defining lobby/lobbyist. Especially in countries where a register has been introduced, ambiguities and wrong expectations arise if the definition is not properly determined and discussed. In Germany, a broad definition was chosen, but some parties were excluded. These include churches and trade unions, even though these organisations also promote their interests.
Dominique Reber emphasised the importance of giving all interested parties room to make their voices heard. In Switzerland, referendums play an important role in this. In the Netherlands, when legislation and regulations are drawn up, we see more attention for consultations and for making transparent the parties that have been consulted.
I myself reflected on the importance of a counterbalance. There has been a lot of talk about this in the Netherlands over the past year, and rightly so. The session in Slovenia reminded me that there is still a lot of work to be done. In the Netherlands, for instance, 17.4 million inhabitants are represented by only 150 MPs (1 in 116,000) divided over 20 political groups. Compared to many other EU countries, this is absurdly low. Given the amount and complexity of the challenges, I regularly wonder how policymakers can adequately supervise the national administration with these limited resources. The central government has also been scaled down in relative terms in recent years, with the result that much sector-specific knowledge has disappeared from ministries. This also makes the dialogue with that sector more difficult.
So I fully support the focus on strengthening countervailing power. But it takes time to realise this. For lobbyists, the lack of knowledge is by nature an opportunity. However, it is much more than that. It is an extra responsibility for everyone who represents interests. It means they have to deal responsibly with the difference in knowledge, be transparent about interests and be prepared to tell the whole story.
This brings me to a point that I consider crucial in public affairs: mutual understanding. A good advocate must be able to empathise with the person on the other side of the table. That means insight and understanding of that person’s context, agenda and perspectives for action. And taking these into account instead of just looking after one’s own interests. In the geopolitical arena, too, we are regularly confronted with the importance of mutual understanding. Those who invest in mutual understanding lay the foundations for a dialogue.
A structural dialogue on lobbying is currently lacking in the Netherlands. In the past year, however, lobbying has been discussed more in the House of Representatives, partly due to incidents. For this reason, would it not be a good idea to organise an annual round-table discussion and debate on lobbying? That would do much to raise awareness among both policymakers and the public. It would also ensure that lobbying rules and (voluntary) codes of conduct become more alive and receive broader support. I hope that people will get a better understanding of how lobbying takes place in the Netherlands. Maybe some prejudices will be confirmed, but people will see that the majority of lobbyists contribute to the public debate in a healthy way.”