Universiteit Leiden

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Dissertation: Unpacking the new powers in European democracy

The presence and participation of interest groups in policymaking processes has become a crucial component of Western democracies. These groups link society and policymakers and influence public policy choices. Their function however, is often taken for granted and not very well researched. Adrià Albareda Sanz has now ‘unpacked’ these groups mobilized at the European Union level. He examined the way they are organized and how they can function as transmission belts that connect the preferences of their members to policymakers. Albareda Sanz will defend his dissertation on Tuesday, September 21st.

Albareda Sanz, a Barcelona born political scientist, has been living in The Netherlands for seven years now. ‘I came to do a PhD here. Well, and to live with my partner. We have two kids, a boy of 5 and a girl of 1,5 years old.’ As a football fan, he supports Barcelona. ‘I followed a research master program in Leiden, where I met my supervisor Caelesta Braun. Caelesta got a Vidi grant and could hire 2 PhD candidates. I was fortunate to get the position. From September 2016 through august 2020 I have been working at the institute of Public Administration. Since September 2020 I have been working as an assistant professor at the Department of Public Administration and Sociology of Erasmus University.’

Interest in how interest groups operate

The interest groups had caught his attention before his thesis work started. ‘I have a background in political science, public administration and international relations, so I have an intrinsic interest in examining how interest groups operate and try to influence our political systems, particularly the European Union, and the consequences for the legislations and the legitimacy of our democracies.’ It was not so much the aura of lobbying and influencing ‘behind the scenes’ that sometimes is attached to the work of these groups that interested Albareda Sanz. ‘I agree that the ‘dark side’ of lobbying is something that got my attention, but in the end, I wanted to know more about the role of interest groups as societal organizations that aggregate and represent different perspectives in public policymaking.’

‘It is a matter of who is being heard and who isn’t, which has very important implications for the quality of our governance systems. In that regard, In think the conceptualization of interest groups as transmission belts that I developed in the thesis, contributes to this assessment of groups in democratic societies. It helps us examine whether and how well interest groups represent their members when interacting with public officials.’

Role of interest groups is growing

Their role should not be underestimated: several public officials of the European Commission interviewed for this research project noted that interest groups are particularly relevant in order to know what different sectors of society think about policy proposals.

‘The role and importance of interest groups in western democracies is growing’, Albareda Sanz says. ‘This shouldn’t be seen as a bad development. Governments demand information, knowledge, expertise, and legitimacy form interest groups. In order to properly address complex policy problems, it is necessary to involve the actors that are affected by them. So, in the current transition from government to governance, the inclusion of interest groups in the policymaking system is a natural development.’

The ‘dark side’ of this development should, at the same time, not be overestimated. ‘Our systems have improved a lot in terms of transparency of the governance processes. Policymakers have to report with whom they meet and for what reasons. But there is always room for improvement, and I think my dissertation makes a contribution. It further explores how the groups with whom policymakers interact, are internally organized. To what extent have interest groups the necessary organizational features to involve their members and represent their position? What organizational structures have they put in place to efficiently and effectively interact with policymakers? By unpacking how interest groups are internally organized, I argue, we can make a better assessment of their democratic contributions.’

More attentive to organiszational structure

There are also practical learnings for all actors involved in European policy making, Albareda Sanz thinks. ‘EU policymakers could be more attentive to the organizational structure of the groups. The data shows that  groups that invest in professionalized structures are the ones that gain more access policymakers. But those are not necessarily the groups that  properly represent the will of their members.’

‘Interest group leaders should invest time and effort in exploring the different views and perspectives within the group, and this is not always done. Citizens need to be aware of the important role that interest groups play in our democracies, and we should ask for more regulations to enhance transparency in the decision making processes where interest groups are involved.’

More information about the defence can be found here


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