The European Quarter in Brussels does not only host the most powerful institutions of the EU but also large numbers of lobby organizations set in office buildings around the institutions. Estimates suggest that more than 25.000 lobbyists work in Brussels with the aim of influencing EU policy-making. Democratizing Influence looks into the architecture of what is sometimes referred to as the “Brussels Bubble” and proposes a rethinking of how and what interests are represented in the policy making process. This site presents an architectural critique of the European Quarter and spatial ideas on how to democratize influence.
Our project Democratizing Influence imagines an alternative system for interest representation in the EU. It is a vision of a new architecture to host a transparent and participatory European democracy. We believe that lobbying should happen in the open - not in secrecy behind the curtain walls of office blocks in Brussels. But we do not only promote lobbying transparency at the EU level. Democratizing Influence also seeks to empower citizens to partake in EU politics through a new citizen network which can counterbalance professional interest groups. In that sense we are not claiming that there is too much lobbying: Instead we want to ensure that a broad and diverse spectrum of interests, ideas and opinions can be expressed through a transparent and fair representation in the EU.
What interests are represented in the decision- making process in the EU? This project wants to expose lobbying and make it accountable.
Lobbying is spatial
EU lobbying is to a large extent a spatial practice that counts on spaces such as cafés, meeting rooms and conference spaces within the European Quarter in Brussels. The considerable presence of lobby offices in the European Quarter indicates that physical proximity to the EU institutions is important in the pursuit of political attention. Although lobbyists are advised to register in the online Transparency Register, the actual meetings are generally unregistered and happen in informal spaces throughout the area.
Lobby of the House of Commons: The word lobbying comes from an association between the physical space of a lobby (a corridor or hall) and the act of influencing policy makers. The word lobby was already used already in Britain in 1640 to define “a place for legislators and members of the public to meet and discuss matters.” (https://www.merriam-webster.com/words-at-play/the-origins-of-lobbyist)
Registration of various typologies with relation to lobbying near Square de Meeûs in the European Quarter.
The drawing is based on exterior visits and photos - Interiors are therefore not accurate.
The “Brussels Bubble” is detached from the EU citizens
East of the center of Brussels lies one square kilometer of office district. While a large part of the office buildings host EU institutions, the majority houses companies, consultancies, NGOs and think tanks working to influence processes that are taking place in the EU buildings. It is a machine that can be hard to enter, understand, or change if you are not part of the right circles of EU employees, lobbyists, and journalists. The image of the “Brussels Bubble” feeds into the criticisms that the EU often faces of it being too bureaucratic, elitist, and in favor of corporate interests. We argue that if the EU wants to challenge its democratic deficit, it must also rethink how it is physically situated - both in brussels and throughout the EU.
The European Quarter is sometimes referred to as the ‘Brussels Bubble’, because it is so detached from the rest of the city. This divide is probably most visible when walking from the European Quarter (bottom of image), with its reflective facades and expensive cars, down the hill to Saint-Josse-ten-Noode - the poorest and most densely populated municipality in Belgium (top of image). Somehow this urban segregation reflects the criticism often leveled against the EU of being too elitist and detached from the citizens.
Free play of the market and lack of regulation has created a bureaucratic monoculture in the European Quarter. The buildings are products of speculation, seeking to optimize size and profit. They are anonymous and it is almost impossible to tell the EU offices from the lobby offices. The reflective facades conceal the activity behind and there is no indication of what the companies inside represent. This smoothness, which seems to be a tool to go under the public radar, does not belong in a democratic system striving for transparency.
Interest groups with offices in Brussels divided by category. Figures and charts presented on this page are based on data from the EU Transparency Register published online by the European Commission and downloaded on december 11th 2019 as raw data. The register relies on voluntary registration by lobbyists which produce various errors and inaccuracies in the data including declaration of spendings and number of lobbyists active.
Map: Lobby offices in the European Quarter. Interest groups with addresses in Brussels are marked in black. EU institutions are hatched.
EU interest representation is opaque and uneven
Within the European Quarter lobbyists compete to be as close to the power as possible. They fight for the politicians’ attention and potential influence on policies. This struggle is unequal. Corporate interests are overrepresented in the European Quarter. The high real estate values, campaigning and research makes it hard for small NGOs and consumer organizations to compete with large companies. And although legislation on interest registration has improved, the world of EU lobbying is still quite obscure to the outsider. It is difficult to figure out what stakeholders are being heard and how the information provided by lobbyists is incorporated into legislation.
We want to take lobbying out of the corridors and informal lobbies and put it on stage in a hearing theatre. Public interest hearings can ensure a transparent dialogue between the politician and the lobbyist. The hearing theatre mixes architectural elements from plenary halls, amphitheatres and classical theaters. One podium seats the lobbyists who can bring forward their information and interests to the stage. The hearing is hosted by the EU politician who acts as a moderator and initiator of the dialogue. Behind the politician sits other politicians and a public audience. The process is watched and legitimized by the Citizen Jury - a panel consisting of citizens from all over the EU - who are also able to participate in the dialogue and bring other interests forward.
With public interest hearings the EU politician will be informed by a broad range of stakeholders including companies, researchers, NGOs, and a Citizen Jury.
We believe that the democratic institution should stage conflicts, interests, and ideas in ways that make them relevant and understandable. Therefore, we argue that we should be inspired by theatres and museums when designing for political representation. We propose to put lobbying on display in exhibitions. What if you could stroll through an exhibition assembling a multitude of objects, research and opinions before you participate in a related political debate? Spaces where you would be able to distinguish what interests are at stake on a certain topic and how it impacts on your everyday life, the environment, and the economy.
A new infrastructure for influence based on a division of Europe based on population and regions of the EU.