Governance

The Future of EU Associations in a Fast-Changing Policy Landscape

Marco Baldoli works as a Senior Association Manager at Kellen, a global association management and communications company born to help build stronger not-for-profit organizations so they can make the greatest impact possible. He argues it’s essential for EU associations to represent a platform where members can easily share knowledge, receive information and provide input. As the EU multilevel governance system is rapidly changing, EU associations and their advocacy activities must adapt and evolve.

The Shift in the EU Governance: Policy Driven Decision-Making

Following the institutional and socio-economic changes that have occurred in Europe over the last decade, the ever-changing EU framework has been reshaped to respond to the deep political crisis of the Union, as well as adjusting to the flaws typical of a multilevel governance system like the one that currently rules the Union.

Therefore, the EU policy-driven lawmaking initiatives have emerged as the most used tool to face the old and future challenges, from the forthcoming EU-27 to the digital revolution, from the environmental crisis to the severe consequences of the COVID-19 outbreak.

The EU institutions have also been trying to adapt to the new economic, social and political trends by increasing – at least to a certain degree – inclusiveness, transparency and engagement, enhancing their political responsiveness while trying to boost participation in the decision-making process, with consequences to the way that intermediate bodies participate in the public sphere. Companies, national associations, consultancies, advocacy groups, think-tanks, non-governmental organizations, lawyers and individual citizens are ever since engaged in the European public sphere. They operate alongside EU associations, complementing their activity in influencing the EU decision-making process.

Although this is not the place to dwell on the implications of such “competition”, suffice it to mention that EU associations are thus facing an unprecedented presence of interlocutors addressing policymakers, which may well jeopardize their role and their activities in the long run, when evaluating which benefits they bring to the sectors they represent in comparison to the aforementioned subjects.  

Tame the Change

At the very beginning of the European project, associations were established as a medium to promote the trade or professional interests in the European public sphere, providing sectors’ representation and advocating their stances. Not much has changed since then, as the associations’ core functions remain the same. 

“The policy drive and the global socio-economic trends have influenced the political processes and enhanced the complexity of the input required, since more and more factors are contributing to shaping the EU multilevel governance structure.”

However, in the meantime, the policy drive and the global socio-economic trends have influenced the political processes and enhanced the complexity of the input required, since more and more factors are contributing to shaping the EU multilevel governance structure.

A first consequence is that the EU institutions and agencies are constantly seeking information from the sectors, both under the form of political input and technical suggestions from EU stakeholders. Knowledge is therefore an indispensable asset to navigate the vast and complex amount of information and initiatives, issued by the EU institutions. However, knowledge is not sufficient per se: the associations’ outreach must be organized, effectively funneled and optimized. 

It is therefore essential that EU associations can represent a platform where members’ experts can easily share knowledge, receive information and provide input. It is true that the very structure of the associations represents a solid framework, through statutes, bylaws and internal rules, which allow members to operate and manage information streams well. However, the associations’ procedures may be perceived as slow and cumbersome, mostly ineffective when it is time to act speedily and anticipate regulations that change quickly. 

While drafting best practices is always advisable, technology may come in handy as well, but many EU associations are yet to explore digital solutions: tools such as document management systems, monitoring applications, regulatory digitalization services and collaborative software are multiplying and becoming more impactful as this trend develops. These tools do not only provide essential archiving and distribution functions but also allow for time optimization, a fundamental objective for association professionals.

Technology is essential also when it comes down to guarantee the continuation or the very survival of the association in situation of emergency. This is also the case of the COVID-19 outbreak for instance, where many operators are experiencing the advantages of having the appropriate digital solutions at their disposal.

New Era for Advocacy

The EU political crisis is not the only major driver for changes in the EU governance. Global politics, as well as traditional media, have been widely impacted by the digital revolution and particularly by the advent of social media. The EU public sphere is no exception, rushing and buzzing to stand out above the noise in the brand-new world.

“The new prominence of communication in policymaking have transformed advocacy activities by creating new synergies between public affairs and public relation departments in order to improve communication towards policymakers and streamline information

This new prominence of communication in policymaking have transformed advocacy activities by creating new synergies between public affairs and public relation departments in order to improve communication towards policymakers and streamline information (see the steep increase of new advocacy materials such as factsheets and infographics).

As the repartition between public affairs expertise and public relations competences has become more blurred, EU associations should foresee forms of adaptation in the future, both in terms of staffing and proficiency within the association. 

In addition, the increasing complexity of the EU policy framework requires increased professionalism in the management of EU associations. The ability to interpret complex phenomena in our economy and society, the capacity to speak with the EU Institutions, as well as supporting high-level and political representation, will increasingly be a decisive element to provide legitimacy to the sector. EU professionals are called on to display proactivity, responsiveness and leadership to compose a highly valuable patchwork that contributes to the sectors’ vision and that aims to establish solid, long-lasting networks. 

Back to the Future

Many of the profound transformations Europe is currently undergoing are inevitable and irreversible. As decision-making will mostly become faster and enforcement stronger, EU associations must step up to the competition with the other stakeholders for the attention of the EU policymakers. However, the EU associations have the crucial and essential advantage of the “representation through (EU) membership”, which offers the opportunity to provide overarching, balanced and comprehensive positions, unmediated by third parties. 

In a fast-changing policy landscape, the inherent power of representation carried by EU associations must be regarded and valued as one of the most decisive for their future, as the demand to be represented and accounted in a collective identity is not only far from disappearing, but rather vital in the EU multilevel governance system.

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