Why Brussels is a top hub for associations

Home to more than 2,250 international and European associations, Brussels confirms year on year its position as a global association hub. A trend that Brexit has reinforced.

Many industry bodies and professional societies are seeking to relocate to Belgium. Beyond waffles, chocolate and moules-frites, what drives associations toward the Belgian capital? The answer lies in the location of the European Union’s (EU) core institutions and the need to keep close ties with EU policymakers who set the rules governing access to a single market of more than 500 million consumers.

a strategic choice

The European Single Market is the EU’s most prominent success. Since its inception in 1957, the single market has expanded both in breadth and depth. In 1988, Jacques Delors, former President of the European Commission, predicted that “in ten years, 80 per cent of the legislation related to economics [would] be of Community origin”. Even if this figure overestimates the reality, EU legislation does regulate many sectors: healthcare, energy and environment, transport, financials, digital or manufacturing, to name a few.

Besides, the institutions launch, each year, a broad range of projects and programmes that represent a significant source of potential funding for associations. Thus, for any trade, industry or professional association, opening an office in Brussels to advocate for its sectorial interests and contribute to the EU agenda can be of critical importance.

EU regulatory debates

The EU’s decision-making process is quite complex and involves multiple institutions; the European Commission (which holds the power of initiative), the European Parliament (whose members are directly elected every five years) and the Council of the European Union (representing the Member States). But, civil society and industry also have a role to play in EU regulatory debates. Their views and perspectives are not only welcome but are an integral part of the decision-making process, with multiple rounds of public consultations, expert groups meetings, etc. to legitimise the ultimate decision.

Although policymakers have the final say, associations can make themselves heard by building upon their expertise and their capacity to empower a given sector to speak with one voice. If you are unable to do so, EU officials will not shy away from sending you back to the drawing board. A few years back, as the different players within the same utility segment could not agree on a common position and were pressing for their case individually, European Commission staff instructed them not come back until they were able to bring a unified proposal to the negotiation table.

Main changes in 2018 and opportunities for international associations

consensus and transparency

While associations may often clash with one another over diverging interests, the EU institutions’ culture – bringing together such a diverse continent – is all about reaching consensus. Experience has taught many in Brussels that a gentleman’s agreement – even when business stakes are high and positions at odds – is usually better than regulators picking winners and losers.

The pre-requisite to such policy engagement in Brussels is transparency: associations, like any party seeking to advocate for a cause, have to fill in the EU Transparency Register and abide by its rules (11,695 registrants to date). Another prerequisite is trust: an association’s credibility vis-à-vis EU institutions and stakeholders is its most valuable asset. Not even the best lobbyist in town can have a tarnished reputation.

Not even the best lobbyist in town can have a tarnished reputation.

converging industries

The need to build broad consensus and coalitions is even more relevant as global trends like digitisation, decarbonisation or the sharing economy lead industries to converge and seek partnerships beyond their traditional realm. Those new cross-industry alliances and coalitions bringing together stakeholders to leverage the upcoming European business and legislative framework are on the rise. In this context, associations’ capacity to engage with their broader ecosystem is critical: the success of an automotive standards development organisation can be measured against its ability to join the conversation on automated driving. In the meantime, the EU makes no secret of its intention to maintain its leadership as a global trendsetter in regulation and standardisation in these new fields, as demonstrated on data privacy with the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR).

With Brexit looming and populism rising in Europe, 2019 will be a year of political renewal following the upcoming European Parliament elections, the subsequent choice of a new president of the European Commission and the nomination of his fellow Commissioners. Will the current political equilibrium between left-right mainstream parties be preserved? Will rising competitors in the centre or at the extremes disrupt this well-established scene? This in-between period is source of both uncertainty and opportunity for associations seeking to profile themselves in the EU bubble. The political agenda for the next five years is in the making, and many are already working around the clock to have their say.

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