Surfing choppy political waters is an essential business skill
Darcy Nicolle / Sep 2019
Political waves in Europe are always crashing about, but the storms of Brexit and the aftermath of the European elections, could whip up bigger waves that hit harder and affect more organisations. More companies will find that they cannot ignore politics and will have to learn to lobby.
A new head of the Commission and another election for the European Parliament is a normal part of the Brussels weather, but it is different this time. The “Establishment” is under huge pressure to show that it can work for citizens’ interests.
The “Establishment” parties - the socialists and conservatives – so used to holding the reins of power in national governments, have seen their popular support and power undermined by populist parties. In the European Parliament they will have to share power with a re-energised liberal group and the Greens and work out how to cope with large numbers of extreme political groups.
In Brussels, the Commission and the European Parliament will feel forced to take bold steps to show their electorates that they are really fighting for them and so push back against the influence of populism.
What bold steps can they make? Take up the cause of climate change with real vigour? Rid Europe of plastics? This would get the support of younger voters. Do they attack large corporations and new internet companies by taxing or regulating them more harshly? This would be cheered on by small businesses and those worried by globalisation. Businesses would like to see Europe doing more to help them, but will single market liberalisation, especially in services get traction, or be smothered by protectionists?
Adding to this pressure to be seen to be doing something is Brexit. On one level, Brexit is a populist rejection of “politics as normal” and a warning that Europe has an existential need to be seen to help the population. On a more practical level it endangers the single market. If the UK diverges from existing and future EU single market legislation, companies will be inevitably be impacted. Clearly companies would like the same rules for their products and services, and their people across the whole of Europe – this is whole point and attractiveness of the single market - and businesses will have to strive hard to retain it.
The departure of the UK has an immediate impact of removing an influential pro-single market player from the EU decision-making table. It follows that the UK will be looking to make its own regulatory rules for business. Further down, the basic structures of how companies usually engage with European politicians – the European associations - will change. Will European associations want UK-based companies as members post Brexit? Will UK-based firms need to set up new associations in Brussels?
This adds up to long list of political dangers, risks and uncertainties. The only certainty is that the old status quo which businesspeople have got used to will change. The politicians they will have to try to persuade will be different, the levers of power they are used to pulling on will change and the industry groups they work within will change.
The “big boys” are well-positioned to make the best of the new situation as they can afford in-house political help and get external help when they need it. But lobbying does not need to be their sole domain, companies of any size need to look at their political risks and be able and ready to protect their interests. As well as engaging with the Commission and the European Parliament, they have to be prepared to meet decision makers in other countries, as the individual European governments will remain the most important decision makers in the European Union.
It means acquiring a new set of skills – how to engage effectively with politicians. A skillset that is just as important as reaching out of other external parties like investors, media and social media, communities and activist groups. How should businesspeople go about learning how to lobby? I found a paucity of practical advice on lobbying skills in the business sections of bookshops, so I set out to rectify this by writing a book specifically written for businesspeople, focusing on the practical aspects of lobbying - from messaging and organising campaigns, through to how to have successful meetings with politicians across Europe.
Too many companies who should lobby do not. And some who do, do it badly. I hope this book will empower them to surf the political waves successfully, however rough the weather gets.