How to win EU friends and influence Brussels

Post-Brexit, UK firms will have to adopt new ways to lobby Brussels policymakers

Brexit came as a shock to many British officials in the EU. For four decades, they had successfully shaped EU rules, norms and standards in the national interest. Now, amid deepening suspicion and bereft of government backing, British companies must find new ways to influence its – future – former EU partners.

To be sure, Britain’s legacy won’t disappear overnight. For example, 30 years of EU energy policy will remain heavily influenced by past UK activity. In the 1980s, Britain lobbied to replace a system of national monopolies with a single European electricity market, and helped define the rules of market liberalization in operation today. In the 2000s, the UK led EU concerns over energy security after Russian-Ukrainian tensions disrupted supply. And more recently, the EU’s renewable energy directive has opened up business opportunities for British expertise in ocean energies.

Nevertheless, no-one doubts that UK political influence will wane, and companies will have to adopt new lobbying strategies. One approach would be to work more closely with EU member states and organisations with whom their business interests align. Remember, governments do not always support the private commercial interests of its home-grown companies; eco-minded German officials, for example, might look more kindly on the interests of a non-German renewable energy investor than a local nuclear energy firm.

State allies

Similarly, companies from outside the EU often seek out a state backer within the EU. Russian enterprises have found Cyprus to be a useful EU ally in areas of financial regulations, while US and even Chinese companies have occasionally wielded more influence in Brussels than some EU member-states. Such corporate outsiders are known to defend their interests fiercely, hiring the best lobbyists and lawyers, and even spying or bullying allies and partners.

Although having your own government onside and inside the EU would undoubtedly be preferable, UK firms are likely to find an EU ally to support their specific commercial interests. There are, after all, 27 member states, with different priorities, interests and influence, to be tapped.

Give and take

A key issue is what non-EU companies would offer in return for foreign backing. The most obvious enticement might be a joint venture with a local company. Sharing technology, investing in plant and jobs, and supporting a combined sales and marketing effort might prove equally valuable.

Here are five suggestions for post-Brexit lobbying strategies:

  • Define your aims selectively. Don’t lobby for major change if an EU Directive is broadly favourable. Pick the specific areas of greatest concern, and limit efforts to parties best placed to help.
  • Map the political terrain. Far from downgrading its relationships with EU countries, British companies should actively target countries according to their specific position on an issue, in a “coalition of the willing”.
  • Be prepared to compromise. EU-based companies and governments will expect something from you when you agree to work together. Consider what you can offer or concede.
  • Invest in communications. You must demonstrate how your interests will benefit locals to garner public support; your voice must be heard wherever you operate, not just in Brussels.
  • Get board-level backing. Brexit uncertainty will persist, but if the CEO is clear and consistent about strategy, companies can create trustworthy and constructive partnerships.