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Living and lobbying in the European capital

11:09 12/11/2013
Catherine Stewart, chairman of Interel Group, talks to ING’s Dave Deruytter about living and lobbying in the European capital, where Europe is heading, and the battle of the sexes in Brussels’ boardrooms

Catherine Stewart came to Brussels in 1984 to work as a lobbyist in the heart of the EU. Today she is chairman of Interel Group, Brussels’ leading public affairs consultancy. Juggling her work with positions on the executive board of the Belgo-British Conference and the Council of the British Chamber of Commerce in Belgium, as well as a Belgian husband and two Belgo-British children, Stewart proves that being an expat does not necessarily mean being completely separate from Belgium. “You can have a foot in both camps.”


What does ‘lobbying’ mean for you, and what makes Brussels one of the world’s top lobbying cities?

When I first came to Brussels in the 1980s, lobbying was very much a dirty word. It still is in a way. But I use it because I think it is important to be honest about what you are doing. And, actually, the source of the word ‘lobby’ is a well-rooted element of democracy. It comes from the central lobby of Westminster in the House of Commons in London, which was the place where any constituent in the country could come to meet their member of parliament to make their case.

That was what lobbying was originally about: providing a space for the general public to meet directly with their elected representatives. And I still see lobbying in Brussels as very much this. It is advocacy, like standing up in a court of law and convincing the jury of your particular interest. Lobbying is not the art of win or lose, it is the art of consensus and compromise.

What is unique about Brussels is that lobbying here is based on issues rather than party politics. In Washington, DC, or London, lobbying is driven by the manifesto of a particular party. Here in Brussels, it is a rather different animal, driven by issues: by the financial services legislation package, the environmental package, the energy package of legislation and so on.

It is also not driven by finance. Washington, DC, is driven by contributions to political finance: political action groups, party finances and campaign funds. So inevitably there becomes this relationship of debt between the lobbyist and the legislator. Here, that is not the case. In Brussels you meet people on the basis of issues, of subject matter, and the best lobbyists are the people who can make their case most effectively.


How have you seen the economic crisis affect EU policy?

I think the economic crisis dominates the debate about Europe and that is what most people think is happening in Brussels right now. But in fact there is a lot of other work that still continues that is rather eclipsed by the economic debate. The work going on about the environment, health, food and trade are big issues and are very important for the long-term growth and health of the EU economy. All of these continue to be driven from Brussels, although the newspapers tend to focus on the economic crisis.


Where do you see the EU heading?

I think we are definitely in a period of fundamental change. I think the euro and the eurozone will survive, but it will probably be a smaller, tighter club managed centrally. This will be one focus of Europe, with a second, broader focus on trade and markets. How we will reach this situation, what it will look like and who will belong to which grouping? Well, we will find that out in the ballot boxes in the next few national elections.

In the meantime, many states have been thinking about what they want and what they expect from Europe, as well as their own position as a country in the world, with or without EU membership. But of course, in view of the rise of large developing nations, we must also remember that we gain tremendous negotiating power as a block of 28, much greater than we ever would as single countries.


You recently wrote a publication on the ‘boardroom battle of the sexes’. What is your view on quotas for women on boards?

I have very mixed views on this. I think it is an open debate and that there is certainly a case for creating incentives for companies to put more women in management positions. I am not totally against quotas, but where the emphasis should lie is on encouraging companies to bring women through the system. We need to help women at much earlier stages in their careers to give them the confidence to take on those roles.

This also means you need to help the men to take their share. The men need to be allowed to leave at quarter to six so they can be at the crèche by six, because if the husbands cannot do that, then the wives cannot stay on for the late meeting or do the business trip.

It is a process and I think the next generation are educated into an expectation of shared responsibility. But the reality is that a lot of women find it very difficult to go through those transition years. So we have to do everything we can to provide them not only with boardroom places, but with opportunities throughout their careers to experiment and to learn.


To function efficiently in a team, what should the sexes know about each other?

I think, classically, men need to learn to listen and women need to learn to speak. Women are often very vocal one-to-one or in a small group, but I notice so often that in a larger group, the women tend to sit back and listen and the men tend to speak.

It is really the role of the chairman to ensure that everybody around the table is encouraged to speak, so this role is very important for any board, particularly for new members. If we are going to have lots of new women as members, they need to be encouraged.


What do you do outside the office?

For a working mother, your main hobby is your children. And I have always said – rather naughtily – that like all good hobbies, you should not have quite enough time for your children. That is when you enjoy them the most. I have always been very committed to my family while working full-time.

Beyond that, I have always been interested in design. One of my jobs many years ago was as a design editor for House and Garden magazine, so I used to visit houses to write about the design. Now I have more time to do that. Here in Belgium there is fabulous design and architecture, so I often go to look at furniture design and fashion – wonderful, wonderful fashion. I also go to the opera. I have always thought the Flemish productions, particularly in Antwerp, are fantastic, and La Monnaie is world-class.


What advice would you give to an expat just moving to Belgium?

Enjoy the country in which you are living. It is always very easy to compare your host country with your home country. No two countries are ever the same, so you will always feel foreign. Take time to explore, because it is often in the small things that you will find the charm. When I was younger and single, I spent many happy weekends just walking around Brussels – the wonderful backstreets all around Place Sainte-Catherine, the oldest corners of Brussels.

Read about the history of the country you are in, because the more you read, the more you will understand. I think it is beholden on us to invest a little time in learning Belgium’s history so we can understand the contemporary challenges it is facing.


What role do you think expats should play in their host community? And at home?

As expats, we have a lot to contribute to how different nationalities, races and cultures can find a way to live together. One of the saddest fallouts of this economic crisis is this growing nationalism and enmity to anyone who is different, be it racially, nationally or economically. And that is worrying. Yet I think we have something to offer in terms of understanding that people are different and that there are many different ways you can lead your life.

As expats, we have also probably been the most privileged – we have had the good education, we have had the opportunities, and with that comes responsibility. We need to exercise that responsibility both when we go back to our home countries and when we live in our communities. To give something back to the community that is hosting you, yes, but also to encourage your home communities to think a little more broadly about the world we live in and its people, and how we share the goods of our planet. After all, we are the privileged ones who have had the most benefit from it.


Photo by Bart Dewaele

This article was first published in Expat Time, 2013

Written by Katy Desmond