Foreword from Paul Varakas and Emma Brown
Is Public Affairs Changing for Good?
As we are a year away from the next European elections, it is a time to start reflecting on what has changed during this Commission Mandate and what trends will remain for the next.
This mandate kicked off with a highly ambitious programme of priorities looking at strengthening the global order, protecting the rule of law and democracy whilst at the same time striving to be the first climate-neutral continent and empowering the next generation of technologies.
After nearly four years of this programme, it is undeniable that the Commission has accomplished a lot in the face of many challenges, and at times opportunities.
No less than a few months into taking office, we were hit with a global pandemic, while only last year saw Russia’s illegal and tragic invasion of Ukraine, the revelations of Qatargate and the advent of ChatGPT in our lives.
These instances were also a wakeup call for the public affairs profession – shaking up the way lobbying was perceived and undertaken.
Covid was something no-one saw coming, what seemed to be something we mistakenly expected to last a few weeks took us into a whole new reality of remote working and virtual meetings and creative backgrounds.
When Covid started to close cities down, people started to wonder what this would mean for their future. In Brussels, a city which is renowned for being based on relationships, lunches and face-to-face meetings – it definitely (momentarily) threw a spanner in the works for public affairs and affected the momentum of the policies. But we, as public affairs professionals, rallied. One could say we banded together, using all our skills – soft and hard – to continue to put our best foot forward. Online events, virtual meetings with MEPs and Commission officials, remote voting – all became something of the norm.
Just as we stopped referring to Covid in every second sentence, having in-person (or hybrid) events and heading back down on the train to Strasbourg, the Russian invasion of Ukraine took place. Whilst this action did not directly affect the majority of public affairs professionals in Brussels, there were a number of knock-on effects. All eyes turned to specific policy areas – like in the pandemic where health policy was the sole entry point into discussions – it now became about energy and food security issues or which businesses were active in Brussels.
With files – and therefore lobbying efforts – prioritised according to the political momentum, a renewed scrutiny ensued on sectors involved in public affairs. This demonstrated clear and simple that transparency must remain a vital and mandatory part of any political ecosystem but that the system is only as strong as its weakest link.
Which leads to third and possibly final bump in the road – Qatargate. This scandal reverberated throughout Brussels. Not only damaging the reputation of the EU institutions, but also those practising public affairs who respect the rules. At SEAP, we have been very vocal to make the facts clear and ensure that the reputation of lobbyists and public affairs professionals alike were not tarnished. Lobbyists were unjustifiably put front and centre of the scandal. Those accused were not lobbyists – they held public official positions.
All the challenges listed above demonstrate the resilience, creativity and adaptability of the public affairs profession. However, as we look at the challenges we have faced and where we stand today – are we back in the same spot we were pre-pandemic or are we in a new changed, improved position?
This adaptability and creativity we refer to is probably why the advent of artificial intelligence tools has set the world of public affairs alight. Since ChatGPT became the lingua franca on everyone’s lips in Brussels, the tool used to start or conclude speeches or to write opinion pieces, people have been wondering if this can truly replace or support public affairs activities. Whilst the technology is fascinating and the results have proven outstanding, the jury is still out from our side on how effective these tools will be in our everyday professional lives. Technology can be a powerful thing and it is an opportunity for public affairs professionals but, nothing is better than the experience and intricate knowledge of Brussels. This report and all the professionals listed therein truly constitute what is Best in Brussels.
* This foreword has not been generated by any AI tool.
The Society of European Affairs Professionals (SEAP) serves as the professional body representing public affairs professionals from across a broad spectrum of actors, from trade associations, in-house corporates, NGO’s and consultancies. SEAP already counts with more than 25 years of history upholding strong standards of transparency and ethical behaviour for the industry, taking a leading role in promoting self-regulation initiatives (such as our Code of Conduct) and participating in public debates to ensure industry voices are heard in the development of regulations that might affect their activities.