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Blog Part II: Lobbying in times of (Corona)-Crisis: the Good, the Bad and the Ugly

An article by Bert Fraussen, Adria Albareda, Caelesta Braun, Moritz Muller & Erin Sullivan, published as a three-part blog series.

The Bad: The challenge of looking beyond narrow, private and short-term interests

Despite these initial assurances, interest groups must also buckle up as global economic activity becomes increasingly turbulent. Policymaking is in equal pandemonium, with new inputs and solutions implemented almost on a daily basis. Consequently, this equally creates  great opportunities for policy change or for maintaining the status quo. This brings us to the bad, understood here as instances where interest groups focus on short-term benefits exclusively focused on the narrow interest of their constituency, to the detriment of the public good and long-term policy solutions.

However, aligning the specific interests of their members and the broader public interest is hard, and the contrast between rhetoric and action might be quite strong. Balancing private and public interests is even more challenging at a time when your members are facing great difficulties and some of them are fighting for their survival (think of the tourism industry). The prime focus of many groups is now limiting the damage done by this crisis, and ensuring their members are able to sail through these stormy weathers (reopening borders for travel within Europe is likely to help a lot in that regard). As a result, their lobby requests might only focus on short-term measures that satisfy the specific demands and needs of their members, while only paying lip service to more long-term and sustainable policy solutions. Paul Pierson argued that “the long term is essentially beyond the political horizon”, a statement that might be even more applicable in a crisis situation like the one we are currently experiencing on a global scale. For instance, when the European lobby group for plastic converters requested that the European Commission would delay upcoming plastic regulations and lift all bans on single-use plastics, they stated that in the current pandemic, plastics is the material of choice for ensuring hygiene, safety as well as preservation from contamination.”  

If policymakers follow their requests, this implies policy measures yield minimal attention to the common good, and relate to particular short-sighted demands of specific industries and professions. As a result, a variety of policy measures will emerge, with little integration across policy domains, a lack of coherence, and unfortunately, unintended consequences. These negative repercussions are perhaps most easily observed in the discussion about how the lock-down could be gradually loosened, as well as the so-called exit-strategies with multiple phases that are now being formulated and implemented in various countries. Are these measures the result of a careful balancing of economic and health-related concerns, or the consequence of varying degrees of lobbying intensity by different segments of society, resulting in a series of disjoint policy asks, with only limited reflection about the broader public interest? Why are shops in some industries allowed to re-open soon, while others who work in very similar conditions have to wait? What determines the level of financial support certain industries receive, and which firms or professions should be granted state aid? Illustrative for the disjoint nature of various policy asks is for instance the case of ‘dismissal fees’ the Dutch government initially used to fine business entrepreneurs for firing employees for purely economic reasons rather than to survive the lockdown period.  Removing such fees from the state-aid packages resulted in political upheaval as it left employees less protected in case of layoffs. Yet the upheaval also underlines the major trade-offs policymakers face, to address competing claims and to best serve the public interest.  Another good example of disjoint decision-making is school closures around the world. As scientific evidence on the role of children in this pandemic was and is limited, results point in the direction of a limited role of children in spreading the disease. Why, then, did some governments decide to keep schools closed while others kept them open? And why are some countries going back to (new) normality by opening cafes, terraces, and bars, while maintaining schools closed? Long school closures are said to contribute to diverging social-economic cleavages within countries and around the world.

Importantly, the repercussions of these decisions will be a long-lasting, as well as the consequences of not being represented. Already in the first responses to the spread of the virus, attention of policymakers in most countries was centered on the situation in hospitals, while other crucial segments of the health sector (such as nursery homes and care for disabled people) were somehow overlooked. It matters who has a seat at the table and is being heard, which brings us to the most “ugly” aspect, the large risks associated with systematic overlooking or ignoring certain societal voices.

This is part II of a three-part blog series. Click to read part I and part III.

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