The growing impact of European law means that more and more campaigning groups are turning their attention to Brussels.
The UK Government is planning to hold a meeting of Europe's international development ministers in Leeds in October during its period as president of the European Union. One thing ministers might not have bargained for is that European development agencies are planning their own mirror conference in Leeds at the same time, with the aim of lobbying EU ministers on development issues.
"With the UK in the EU president's seat and leader of the G8, it's a great time to put pressure on decision-makers," says Howard Mollett, European campaigns officer at Bond, the network of UK international development charities.
But getting UK campaigning groups to turn their attention from national politics to Europe has been a struggle, he says: "We can no longer just work at UK government level. However, most charities have been slow to change focus, although that change is starting to happen."
In the past, voluntary sector lobbyists focused almost exclusively on Westminster, but the increasing influence of European legislation on member states means that many campaigning groups are turning their attentions to Brussels.
The UK's presidency of the EU in the second half of this year, and continuing discussions about the proposed European Constitution in the newspapers and on television, will further highlight the importance of Europe. The NCVO has launched a consultation among voluntary organisations about their views on the constitution. Meanwhile, UK campaigners are angry at a new rule that gives access to the European Parliament only to those organisations with offices in Brussels.
"We're very unhappy with the decision and have been calling on MEPs to reverse it," says the RSPB's European institutions manager, Victoria Phillips.
But she adds that even if the restriction stands, lobbyists will find ways to get round it.
According to Nolan Quigley, European and international officer at the NCVO, the Parliament might review the new rules following protests from charities. He says that about 70 per cent of UK legislation originates in some form in Europe - a figure that illustrates the importance for many campaigning groups of keeping tabs on what is happening in the European Commission, the Parliament and the Council of Ministers.
UK campaigning organisations lobby European decision-makers in two ways.
The first route is by working on their own, although generally this method is only used to influence British MEPs or ministers, who should be familiar with the charity. It is also probably only an option for larger charities.
The second route is through pan-European networks. For example, the RSBP is a member of BirdLife International, a network of European bird welfare organisations based in Brussels.
The UK's campaigning organisations are often the largest or most active within these networks. Euronet, the European Children's Network, represents children's welfare and rights groups across the continent, but UK organisations frequently take a lead in these networks.
The NSPCC's EU adviser, Tara Hopkins, says: "In the UK the voluntary sector has a higher profile and more of a campaigning history than in most other European states, especially the countries that have recently joined the EU."
It is a similar story among development agencies. Bond's Mollett says: "The UK has the largest NGO development sector, although the Scandinavians are quite strong and influential and the French have a more activist-based coalition of development groups."
The RSPB's Phillips says that in the environmental sphere 90 per cent of laws that end up on national statute books originate in Europe, making it vital that charities such as hers focus on Brussels. Much of the charity's work is carried out through networks such as BirdLife International, which organises taskforces to examine issues that are relevant to legislation, and brings together representatives from different member states to thrash out a common position.
The BirdLife network is part of a larger, pan-European environmental network that includes campaigners such as the WWF-UK, Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace.
During the drafting of the EU constitution, the environmental network was keen to ensure there was a strong environmental commitment. "There was a risk that environmental commitments would be dropped to simplify the constitution, so we fought hard to keep them in," says Phillips.
The NSPCC, meanwhile, has been focusing on issues such as the EU-wide sharing of information on child sex offenders. "We've been campaigning for this for years, and earlier this year the European Commission put forward proposals that would achieve this," says Hopkins.
She notes that many people in the UK think the EU is concerned only with issues such as the environment, consumer affairs and competition policy.
"But the EU's influence extends to wider issues, including child protection and children's rights," she says.
Over the past 10 years, the NSPCC has been tracking changes in the nature of cross-border child protection issues and the increase in concern about child trafficking, sexual exploitation and safety on the internet.
Hopkins says: "When it comes to an issue such as trafficking, you can't lobby only at Westminster because the legislation begins its life in Europe, then filters down to the member states three or four years later."
But lobbying in Europe is not as straightforward as lobbying our own Parliament or the Scottish Assembly. Although the lobbying methods - mainly briefings and face-to-face meetings - are the same, the EU's structures are far more complex than those in the UK.
The three power centres of the EU are the European Commission, the Parliament and the Council of Ministers, and the lobbying importance of these institutions will depend on what stage a piece of legislation is at. Because the commission is not just the EU's civil service but can also originate legislation, it is here that lobbying will take place at the beginning of a piece of legislation, otherwise known as a directive.
From here, the legislation passes to the European Parliament, which can amend laws proposed by the commission. Campaign groups seeking to influence policy at this stage of the process will need to target MEPs, especially key members of relevant committees.
Then the legislation must be approved by the Council of Ministers, comprising the relevant ministers from the 25 member states. For example, for an environmental directive there will be a council meeting of the 25 environment ministers.
Finally, the directive will be passed to the member states for implementation into their own legislation. This whole process takes an average of two years, but can take longer for complicated or controversial laws.
"Few people realise how long it takes from a law being proposed to it being implemented, so lobbyists have to get used to the fact that it may take years for them to see the fruits of their action," says Quigley.
Another thing that lobbyists must learn is that different approaches will be needed, depending on who is being lobbied. For example, a campaigner from a UK charity might find MEPs from the UK fairly responsive but struggle to interest members from other countries, who will not have heard of the charity. "If we're lobbying non-British MEPs or officials, we make it clear that we're speaking on behalf of the European networks," says Hopkins.
"Unless they can see that you represent organisations from across the continent, it won't open doors for you."
She notes that the Home Office and many British MEPs have links with the European Commission and can help campaigners gain access to that body's officials.
Hopkins is keen to point out, however, that influencing European decisions does not mean giving up on the lobbying of Westminster politicians, because national ministers continue to enjoy significant power in Europe through the Council of Ministers.
Hopkins says: "Some people think lobbying Europe means going to Brussels all the time, but in some cases it's more important to influence the relevant minister at Westminster because they have to approve legislation from the commission and the European Parliament."
Quigley believes strongly that UK campaigning organisations should focus attention on Europe. "Corporations have become a lot more active in lobbying decision-makers in Europe, and so should the voluntary sector," he argues.
He says that, although European politics can seem daunting and complex, even smaller charities can get involved and have their voices heard.
"The pan-European networks cover a wide range of issues, and joining one of these networks is the best way for a smaller organisation to get involved," he says.
EU FACT FILE
In 2004, 10 countries from eastern and central Europe joined the EU, taking its membership to 25. Elections to the European Parliament take place every five years and the next elections are in 2009.
Twelve of the EU's 25 member states share the euro currency, which came into use in January 2002. The European Central Bank manages the currency, sets interest rates and implements the EU's economic and monetary policies.
The European Commission is the EU's civil service, but it also drafts legislation. Each of the 25 departments, or directorates-general, has responsibility for a specific policy area. The UK's commissioner is Peter Mandelson, who has responsibility for trade.
The European Parliament is growing in power. It amends legislation proposed by the European Commission and mainly works through committees. Under the principle of "co-decision", it shares legislative power with the Council of Ministers. The Parliament has the power to reject the budget and sack the commission.
The Council of Ministers gives final approval to new laws. While heads of government meet every six months, the main work of the council is done through sectoral meetings of member state ministers.
The Court of Justice ensures that EU law is interpreted and applied in the same way in each of the member states.
TIPS FOR SUCCESSFUL EU LOBBYING
- Join one of the European voluntary sector networks
- Focus on the relevant British minister because he or she will have influence in the Council of Ministers
- Understand the different roles of the European Commission, the European Parliament and the Council of Ministers
- Be patient - it can take years for legislation to reach the statute books
- Be flexible - when working in a European network, you will have to compromise
- Identify and cultivate British MEPs - they can help you influence officials and other MEPs
- Identify the directorate-general, or department, dealing with your policy area and the key officials
- Get information from the EU's web portal, http://europa.eu.int/ and www.ncvo-vol.org.uk/europeaninternational.