Research note. Examining the European Commission’ s open consultations with stakeholders

Research note by Adriana Bunea, Marie Curie Fellow, University College London

Consultations with stakeholders are a key policy instrument used by the European Commission (EC) to prepare its legislative proposals and a core component of its Regulatory Fitness policy. The European executive has the legal obligation to held consultations on legislative proposals that require an extended impact assessment, and that “result in substantial economic, environmental and/or social impact on a specific sector” (European Commission 2002). The EC consultative regime takes different forms and varies across policy areas and decision-making events in terms of tools and methods used for gathering stakeholders’ policy feedback. The scholarship distinguishes two categories of consultations conducted by the Commission: ‘closed’ or ‘targeted’ consultations with selected stakeholders, and ‘open’ online consultations to which all interest organizations and European citizens can submit online written policy position documents.

The three articles examine the EC open consultations with stakeholders from two perspectives: (1) as an instrument used strategically by the European executive to increase its bargaining success during legislative decision-making in the Council; and (2) as a lobbying venue in which interest organizations articulate lobbying strategies and adopt different lobbying behaviours in pursuit of policy influence.

  • Adriana Bunea and Robert Thomson (2014), «Consultations with Interest Groups and the Empowerment of Executives: Evidence from the European Union», Governance: An International Journal of Policy, Administration, and Institutions. doi:10.1111/gove.12119
  • Adriana Bunea (2014), «Explaining interest groups’ articulation of policy preferences in the European Commission’s open consultations. An analysis of the environmental policy area», Journal of Common Market Studies 52(6): 1224-1241.
  • Adriana Bunea (2015), «Sharing ties and preferences: Stakeholders’ position alignments in the European Commission’s open consultation», European Union Politics 16(2) DOI: 10.1177/1465116514558338


Open consultations empower executives in legislative decision-making

The Governance article examines the effect of executives’ consultations with stakeholders (interest groups) on the congruence between the executives’ policy proposals and subsequent legislative outputs. We elaborate a theoretical argument about the conditions under which executives consult interest groups to improve their own bargaining success relative to legislative actors during subsequent policy negotiations with legislatures.  We argue that open consultations are key to both formal and informal agenda-setting power of the executive: they increase the amount and accuracy of executives’ information about the preferences of legislators and contribute to the executives’ claim for legitimacy and technical expertise. For these reasons, we expect that open consultations bolster the executive’s bargaining success by improving both its formal and informal agenda-setting power and derive a set of testable hypotheses that allow us to examine the observable implications of this.

We test this argument in the context of EU policymaking and examine the impact of open consultations on the Commission’s bargaining success in the legislative decision-making in the Council. Bargaining success is defined as the level of congruence between the Commission’s policy position on discreet policy issues and the decision outcome adopted in the legislative act. The empirical analysis is conducted on the Decision-making in the European Union II dataset (DEUII) (Thomson et al. 2006; Thomson et al. 2012). The analysis focuses on 151 controversial issues raised by 54 legislative proposals that were first discussed in the Council after the 2004 enlargement. The study investigates whether and the extent to which the Commission’s legislative proposals were congruent with the content of the EU legislative acts that were subsequently adopted.

The findings indicate that open consultations increase the Commission’s bargaining success relative to those cases in which the Commission used targeted consultations or a mix of both open and targeted consultations. In particular, large consultations (involving more than 150 interest groups) have a strong positive effect: the results indicate that the odds of Commission success are more than six times greater if the European executive held such large open consultations than if it did not consult openly. Small open consultations (involving up to 50 organizations) are also associated with significantly more success for the Commission, but the effect is weaker. The multivariate analysis indicates that ‘closed’ consultations do not have a significant effect on the Commission’s bargaining success.

The study demonstrates that even after controlling for the level of effective support by legislators for the Commission’s proposals, the European executive has more bargaining success when it consulted widely. This implies that consultations are not only associated with more bargaining success but more bargaining success in the face of resistance from legislative actors. Also, large consultations bolster the bargaining power of the Commission. This finding provides valuable insights into the European executive’s motivations to launch and organize open online consultations: this measure aims not only to address issues of democratic deficit and political legitimacy, but it also represents a key ingredient for a successful negotiation strategy during EU legislative decision-making.

Open consultations as a lobbying venue

The remaining two articles examine the European Commission’s open consultations as a lobbying venue and examine key dimensions of interest groups’ lobbying strategies and behaviours in this setting.

The Journal of Common Market Studies article explains the variation in the extent of interest groups’ participation in the European Commission’s open consultations as indicated by the frequency with which they express policy preferences in these policy events. The study proposes a systematic empirical analysis of interest groups’ preferences expressed on issues characterizing five open consultations organized by the European executive to draft environmental legislative proposals regulating aspects such as waste management, CO2 emissions and the inclusion of aviation activities in the EU Emissions Trading Scheme. Interest groups’ expressed policy preferences were identified based on their written policy position documents submitted to the Commission during consultations. The study defines a ‘policy preference’ as a group’s formally expressed demand/support for a specific policy outcome on a policy issue.

The study draws on theories of interest groups’ lobbying strategies and elaborates a theoretical framework arguing that the probability of a group articulating a preference in a consultation is affected by the inter-organizational environment in which it lobbies and by its resource endowment. The study defines the inter-organizational environment in terms of the number of inter-organizational ties an interest group has with other organizations participating in the consultation. The study focuses on formal organizational membership ties. Resource endowment is measured by (1) the interest type represented by the organization (i.e. business, environmental, etc.) and (2) whether the organization has a Brussels office. The study argues that organizations with higher numbers of inter-organizational linkages are more likely to articulate a preference in the considered consultations. Business organizations are expected to articulate fewer preferences in open consultations since they prefer direct meetings with policymakers. Organizations having a Brussels office are expected to be more likely to articulate a preference in consultations.

The results of the empirical analysis provide strong support for the argument that the organizational linkages have a direct effect on the probability of a group articulating a preference: the more inter-organizational links an interest group has with other stakeholders, the more likely it is to actively engaged with the consultation event by expressing a preference. The findings suggest that business organizations are less inclined to use open consultations in order to express their preferences than non-business organizations. The strength of the effect varies though when using a more fine-grained categorization of interest type variable. Contrary to the theoretical expectation, the findings indicate that having a Brussels office makes an organization less likely to articulate a preference in open consultations. The analysis controls for the effect of the organizational form and finds that European associations are significantly more likely to express preferences in consultations than other organizations.

The implications of these findings are threefold. First, they indicate that in the context of EU policymaking, lobbying behaviour is largely built in response to the ‘social context’ of lobbying and under the constraints imposed by interest groups’ formal membership in inter-organizational co-operative structures. Second, the findings illustrate how open consultations can play the role of an instrument aimed at counter-balancing the dominance of business in the EU policymaking, and show that while business participates in consultations, these interest groups use them differently than organizations with fewer lobbying resources. Thirdly, the study suggests that European associations overcome challenges associated with an encompassing membership and perform their representational mandate, as indicated by a higher share of expressed policy preferences relative to national associations or individual organizations.

The European Union Politics article examines in greater details the importance of inter-organizational linkages for lobbying in the context of open consultations and asks a key research question: what explains interest groups’ position alignments in the European Commission’s open consultations?

The study argues that position alignments result from purposeful coordination among interest organizations that are linked by formal membership ties in the same over-arching organizational structures. Membership ties facilitate coordination and the creation of lobbying coalitions in the context of EU policymaking. This in turn results in interest groups aligning their positions expressed in the EC open consultations. The observable implication is that interest groups linked by a membership tie express identical positions across issues within a consultation. To investigate this, the study examines empirically whether in a specific consultation there is a systematic pattern of organizations sharing a tie and articulating identical positions across issues. The number of organizations displaying such a pattern illustrates the extent to which position alignments can be attributed to coordinated lobbying efforts (coalitions). The argument is tested on five environmental open consultations. The findings indicate that organizations sharing a membership tie are significantly more likely to articulate identical positions across issues and that this effect is stronger that the fact of representing the same type of interest or having a similar organizational form. More than half of the analyzed organizations were found to engage in coordinated lobbying. This provides valuable insights into the lobbying strategies adopted by interest groups early on in the EU policymaking and emphasizes once again the importance of the ‘social embeddedness’ of EU lobbying. Organizations participate in consultations following a ‘logic of membership’ that guides their collective action. This indicates that interest groups strategically respond to policymakers’ interest in gathering information about the levels of aggregate support for different policy options among stakeholders, and approach consultations as part of coordinated coalitions. The findings also illustrate the importance of European associations in facilitating lobbying coordination and preference aggregation within the EU system of interest representation.


Adriana Bunea is a political scientist with an interest in EU politics, policymaking and interest groups. She is currently a Marie Curie Research Fellow atUniversity College London, Department of Political Science