“Rarely in the history of capitalism has anyone been handed an opportunity like it. Almost overnight, the entire gamut of regulations once handled on Britain’s behalf by Brussels will be transplanted back to London. Trade policy, product markets, financial standards, agricultural subsidies. Tedious as such matters sound, swaying the rules in your company’s favour can mean the difference between profits in billions rather than millions. In the coming years, Britain’s public affairs industry is likely to be transformed into something that more closely resembles what Americans call K Street. Companies that fail to engage with this new world are likely to struggle, while others may flourish.”

Although often claimed to have originated in Washington, the BBC recently proved that “lobbying” finds its roots in the gathering of Members of Parliament and peers in the hallways (“lobbies”) of the UK Houses of Parliament. Ironically with such British roots, Brexit is already setting off a lobbying boom in Brussels and London – two centres where Ellwood Atfield are very active as the leaders in public affairs recruitment.

Transparency International recently calculated a conservative estimate for the number of Brussels lobbyists as 25,000, with a further 10-15,000 lobbyists across Europe that come to influence decisions in Brussels. This number is set to increase in the wake of the Brexit vote, particularly for British companies and trade associations. However, continental European lobbyists will also be kept busy in sectors ranging from automotive to financial services, threatened by the UK’s decision.

For the UK to regain at least some influence in Brussels, British businesses will have to step up their representation in Brussels to make up for the loss of influence in EU policy-making from the UK Permanent Representation to the EU, British Members of the European Parliament and Brits in the European Commission. Without an office in Brussels and savvy government relations strategist in their UK HQs, British multinationals will have very little influence over the 80% of EU legislation that will continue to affect their businesses across the European Economic Area. The Brexit negotiations will drive demand for lobbyists on both sides of the Channel as each industry sector and multinational vies to secure the best trade deal.

Brexit transformed policy-making in Brussels overnight

UK policymakers are focussed on Brexit and no longer on influencing EU policy since June 23rd 2016. This switch of focus is no more apparent than in the UK Representation to the EU which had previously been preparing for British Presidency of the EU, but is now reporting to David Davis, the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union. The UK’s influence over EU policy-making literally evaporated overnight starting with the resignation of European Commissioner Jonathan Hill. Today, senior British Commission staff report being ignored by their colleagues, while UK Members of the European Parliament look increasingly isolated except for perhaps Nigel Farage! In the Council, European ministers are already meeting as a group of 27 without the UK. The absence of the UK’s voice in EU policy-making has been felt immediately in important dossiers like copyright legislation, and the future of liberal policies previously promoted by the UK such as the single market in regulated professions looked doomed to failure in the new EU.

UK companies and the City always thought the British government was their best lobbyist in Brussels, but no longer. UK organisations are already adapting how they lobby in Brussels, for instance by working with more like-minded Swedish, Dutch and Danish representatives in the Council. Indeed all Brussels lobbyists are adjusting to a new Europe dominated by France, Germany and Italy, while confronting new political dynamics like a more assertive Eastern European Visegrad group.

Brexit provides opportunities for public affairs practitioners in the UK, Europe and globally

One major opportunity for public affairs practitioners in the UK is working for British companies and trade associations who are digesting what Brexit means not just for UK or EU legislation in the future, but also their global prospects as an independent member of the WTO. Furthermore, removing the 1972 European Communities Act from the statute book will lead to many new laws affecting business in the UK so the ‘lobbies’ of the Houses of Parliament will be busy places.

Another Brexit opportunity is for public affairs people in Brussels, helping UK organizations to influence the negotiations after Article 50 is triggered. The extent to which any company or sector is affected will depend on how much it currently benefits from the Four Freedoms of the European Union i.e. the free movement of goods, services, people and capital. Additionally, laws and regulations, including terms of trade between the UK and countries outside the EU, might change, for better or for worse.

British trade associations are currently under-represented in Brussels especially compared to German counterparts who have more than 50 national trade association offices in Brussels. For example, the ‘nation of shopkeepers’ has no British Retail Consortium office in Brussels while the German Retail Federation has 5 lobbyists permanently based in the capital of the EU. Similarly many major British multinational companies operating across the European Union do not currently have Brussels offices. This will need to change.

Many of Brussels’ public affairs consultancies and law firms are busy setting-up Brexit practices as their clients ask for more analysis, advice and lobbying services. And now headhunting firms are being asked to recruit more lobbyists than ever.

 

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