Cross Atlantic Lobbying Styles: A Comparison Between US and EU Interest Group Dynamics

As two of the largest democratic and economically affluent entities functioning on an international level, the United States and the European Union can be compared in a lot of ways. This perceived similarity can be utilized to get a better idea of how the US and the EU handle interest groups and legislative influence differently, and how these different systems impact their constituents.

In the United States, it is an open secret that politician’s opinions and interactions with legislation is correlated to who lobbies them and who donates campaign money. The largest proportion of lobbyists in Washington are far and away those representing corporate interests, and of the largest 100 entities lobbying the US federal government, 95 of them represent corporations.[1] The decreased importance of labor unions in American society has cleared the way for an undue emphasis to be placed on business interests in recent decades, as 86.89% of the $4.1 billion spent on lobbying in the US in 2022 was business affiliated.[2]

Lobbying in the EU is primarily focused on the EU Commission and, to a lesser extent, Parliament.[3] The EU commission is the only EU institution empowered to initiate legislation, so this is where communication with lawmakers is focused.[4] In 2021, $1.5 billion was spent on lobbying EU institutions and Brussels was the city with the second most lobbying activities-after Washington D.C.[5] Legislation is very technical in the EU, and commissioners rely on industry professionals for information on how to effectively legislate complex issues, and lobbyists typically gain access to commissioners through expert consultations.[6]

The institutional differences between the US and the EU are obviously a significant factor when examining their respective relationships with interest groups. Without getting too into the weeds, it is important to understand that the EU Commission exists to represent the interests of the EU as a whole—not their home states, and commissioners are required to make decisions independently of their home governments’ preferences. Additionally, Commissioners are nominated for a seat by the president elect of the Commission, and the whole list of nominees must be agreed upon by every EU ahead of state to establish the Commission.[7] This means that EU Commissioners do not need to get their hands on significant amounts of cash to fuel campaigns like politicians do in the US, and advocacy in the EU is seen-especially internationally-as being largely apolitical because of this.[8] Organization of the US’s political system makes policy outcomes more of a winner-take-all situation, whereas the EU relies much more heavily on consensus and compromise.[9] American law makers tend to be all ‘for’ or all ‘against’ many issues, while EU Commissioners are more accustomed to working through legislation until it can pass on a compromise.[10] Because of this, a 2007 study found that 23% of US lobbyists attained all of their lobbying goals, compared to EU lobbyists at only 17%.[11] Further, 31% of US lobbyists attain partial success, and 43% of EU lobbyists did the same.[12] This winner take all trend is palpable in the US for anyone who follows politics, and it very likely impacts American’s faith in their political systems.

Culture is another factor that fuels the differences between the EU and the US in regard to lobbying. While subtle political culture may require more nuance to asses, understanding the general differences in what is acceptable can lend insight into how these systems really operate. American lobbying is, by all accounts, more aggressive than EU lobbying. Confronting public officials in the US is commonplace for lobbyists, and pressure is applied both professionally and financially by American lobbyists.[13] As aforementioned, financial campaign contributions are an undeniable part of American lobbying and large campaign donations from a corporation’s super PAC can place significant pressure on law makers when they are making policy decisions. When European lobbyists attempt to adopt the American style of lobbying, they are often unsuccessful, as European lobbying relies more on long term relationships and trust over donations or pressure.[14] Most European lobbying occurs in the form of sharing research with policymakers during scheduled meetings and is largely seen as an exchange where lobbyists gain access in exchange for valuable research and reliable data on the policy at hand.[15] Contrary to the EU, access to US officials is often based on who is the loudest, most persistent, and most informed.[16] This puts industries with less resources at a serious disadvantage, as they cannot fund or fuel lobbyists to be as competitive as more profitable groups.

Lobbying is a natural part of democracy, and eliminating it entirely is not an option, however much many Americans may want to do so. That being said, it is not difficult to ascertain a level of dissatisfaction with the current system, as it is convoluted, complex, and non-transparent. Looking to other prominent democracies can inform American decision-making and perhaps lead, eventually, to a better system being developed in the future. There are not answers here, and I doubt they exist anywhere else at this point in time, but more attention should be focused on lobbying to help the US (and the EU!) create a more democratic system that does not place policy priority on money alone.


[1] Lee Drutman, How Corporate Lobbyists Conquered American Democracy, The Atlantic (2015),

[2] Lobbying Data Summary, Open Secrets, (last visited Sept. 27, 2023).

[3] The Ordinary Legislative Procedure, Council of the European Union (last visited Sept. 28, 2023).

[4] Id.  

[5] Silvia Kotanidis, EU Transparency Register 2021 Interinstitutional Agreement 3 (2021).

[6] Cornelia Woll, The Brash and the Soft-Spoken: Lobbying Styles in a Transatlantic Comparison, 1 Interest Groups and Advocacy 193, 200 (2012).

[8] Justin Greenwood & Alasdair R., The State of the European Union: With US or Against US? European Trends in American Perspective: Young, EU Interest Representation or US-Style Lobbying?, 257, pg cited (Vol. 7, 2005).

[9] Christine Mahoney, Lobbying Success in the United States and the European Union, 27 J. Publ. Policy 35, 44 (2007).

[10] Id.

[11] Id.

[12] Id.

[13] See Woll, supra note 5 at 203-05.

[14] Woll, supra note 5 at 201, 200.

[15] Id. at 208.

[16] Id.