Back in my days as a civil servant one phrase dominated UK government-speak: evidence-based policy-making. The essential idea was to gather adequate evidence about a problem, and how various solutions could work, and determine a policy choice based on that. Now of course this was constrained by the ideology of the government of the time, but it should have meant that reports should not have been suppressed higher up the political chain, Theresa May style.
But a think tank is not a governmental institution. The nature of a think tank is to be partial, to push a particular agenda. Yet if anything is to separate a think tank from a pure lobby organisation is that it should have some sort of evidence for its assertions. In essence it needs to reverse the phrase above – to practice policy-based evidence-making.
This is what Open Europe has been doing in London for ages, and has more recently tried to start to do in Berlin. It has an essential line – that the EU should be more market-orientated, less regulated, and that EU-wide democracy cannot work, and that the EU must essentially be intergovernmental and based on the notional democratic accountability of its Member States. Open Europe then dream up things – reports, tables, quotes – that work towards this end, and because they style themselves as a think tank and are clever and consistent in their communications, the media – in the UK at least – laps it up. Their table about Merkel might have been inaccurate, or their recent piece for The Local Germany not exactly accurate, but they persist and they succeed nevertheless.
But now in Berlin, with a big launch event next week*, there’s a new think tank dealing with EU matters in Germany’s capital: the Jacques Delors Institut. It’s the German office of the Paris-based Notre Europe. My old friend Bernd Hüttemann tweeted that Open Europe “is not the only campaigning non-Germany think tank in town now”. I would quibble with the implication that there are even German campaigning think tanks in Berlin, but Bernd’s point that the Jacques Delors Institut could become a campaigning think tank would be very welcome. We have plenty of evidence about the problems the EU faces, but little in the way of pointed, media-savvy work to set the political agenda in a way that strengthens the EU, rather than seeking to limit or unravel it.
So what should the Jacques Delors Institut actually do?
Firstly, it needs an agenda that can stand alone, and that this agenda needs to be simple and positive. That economic integration in the EU works, and that it is a balance of free markets and regulation. That intergovernmentalism does not work. That EU-wide democracy is possible and desirable. Nothing that it should does should distract from these aims. Everything it does should be digestible for a half-knowledgeable policy maker or politician – it should not be excessively academic.
Second, unlike much of the traditional pro-European establishment, it should specifically not focus on populists, nationalists or extremists. We have plenty of critique of why UKIP / Jobbik / AfD / Grillo (delete as appropriate) are wrong. What we do not have are positive ideas for reform that come from the responsible centre. The Jacques Delors Institut needs to set its own course, not mirror or become embroiled in fights with the likes of Open Europe.
Third, it needs the very best multi-channel, multi-language communications strategy. It needs to understand the interplay between traditional and new media, and how the latter can shape the mainstream media narrative. In this context it needs to have strong characters who can shape a debate, and become known. Henrik Enderlein, the boss of the Institut, has a good academic record as far as I can tell, but his web comms leave a lot to be desired! Is he someone you can put up against Mats Persson in a debate?
So that’s how it could work. If it doesn’t do that then the Jacques Delors Institut will end up grouped together with a bunch of other pro-EU think tanks of questionable use.
Christopher Howarth from Open Europe has rather delightfully proven my point with this tweet:
Nowhere in this blog entry do I say the pro-EU side is engaged in evidence-based policy-making, and indeed in the very first paragraph I allude to my cynicism of the whole concept anyway. So take someone’s words and twist them for your purposes – yes, that’s Open Europe.
* – I have been invited to the launch and will tweet it using the event tag #voice4eu, and know one member of staff at the Jacques Delors Institut. I have no professional affiliation with them.