UCL European Institute


Revolving Doors or Sliding Doors in Brussels?

18 July 2019

Research sheds new light on EU business and Government relations.

revolving door

From reading newspapers, articles and blogs, the impression is that Brussels, pretty much like Washington, is plagued with excessive business power. Among other things, this power is usually perceived to be exerted through the exchange of personnel between government and business: what is often referred to as “revolving doors”. The idea here is that individuals get socialised in the corporate environment and when they switch employment to the public sector they tend to favour business, against consumers, for instance, or they favour business due to the promise of higher salaries in the private sector. These dynamics are well documented in the US by Lee Drutman, with a recent book titled: The Business of America is Lobbying. In the US, a good proportion of Congressmen and staff rotate every year into the business community, often employed as policy lobbyists. As the old adage goes, who you know matters much more when it comes to lobbying than what you know. The logic and evidence are irrefutable.

Our recent research casts doubt on the generalizability of these findings. Too many observers have taken these insights drawn from the US experience for granted and uncritically applied them to the EU. Although some high-profile cases of revolving doors have been documented (see the Barroso case), in our recent papers we suggest that the revolving doors phenomena is actually the exception, not the norm, in Brussels.  Instead, EU business and government interaction is better characterized as “sliding doors”, namely the separation of careers, especially between the public and private sectors.  The reason for this difference lies in the institutional incentives which drive individuals and companies within the EU context. In Brussels, companies need credible managers who can interact on a long-term basis with EU officials and who can provide reliable technical information. The real currency in Brussels is technical expertise, and not money or votes, as in Washington.  Moreover, individuals are “captured” by EU institutions with high salaries, good benefits and a strong sense of community.

Our research relies on new data and methods to answer important questions so far overlooked in EU scholarship. First, we rely on unique data on more than 300 government affairs managers, with information on their function within the company, their work background and education, gathered on LinkedIn and other sources. Second, we introduce innovative techniques to study career data, such as sequence analysis and survival analysis.

In our first paper, published in European Journal of Political Research (EJPR), we find that very few government affairs managers working for companies in Brussels have experience in the public sector. Moreover, we find that in the EU there is a neat separation of careers between the public and the private sectors. Government affairs managers tend to spend their entire career in the company where they work. This stands in stark contrast with Washington, where most lobbyists will have experience of working in the public sector.

In our second paper, published in the journal Business and Society, we open up the black box of government affairs offices in Brussels, looking at how these offices are organized, who works there, what their functions are, and so on. We find that most companies employ as “in-house lobbyists” mid-ranking managers with education in social sciences and work experience in the company.  Moreover, we find that government affairs have become in recent years a well-recognised function of the company. Finally, the use of external consultancies is much less frequent than in Washington.

In our latest paper, published in The American Review of Public Administration (ARPA), we find further evidence that the revolving doors dynamic is not a frequent occurrence in the EU. By looking at companies’ in-house lobbyists’ career progression, we find that those with experience in the public sector are actually less likely to advance in their current career within the company. This suggests that companies in Brussels do not value work experience in the public sector as an asset, as highly as business management and sector knowledge, and hence do not pay a premium for that. This stands, again, in stark contrast to many US-focused studies, which demonstrate that lobbyists with experience in the public sectors will receive higher salaries.

In sum, we find that business and government relations in Brussels are very different from those in Washington. Although some high-profile cases of revolving doors are present, in the EU the norm is a neat separation of careers between the public and private sectors or “sliding doors.” It would appear, in Brussels at least, that what you know does trump who you know.