Thinking - CC / Flickr
Thinking - CC / Flickr

EUObserver has an article today entitled “Think-tank blasts EU commissioners’ pensions package“. The ‘think tank’ in question is, of course, Open Europe, and the article quotes their press release on the Commissioner pay issue:

Taxpayers around Europe, whose pensions have been swallowed up in the recession, will rightly question why they are footing such an enormous bill for a handful of remote officials who they never voted for in the first place

What degree of thinking was needed to come up with that? Open Europe has a clear line – they want a looser, more intergovernmental Europe, and hence they behave like a pressure group rather than a think tank. Whatever they brand themselves is not relevant; their prime reason for existence is not the production of ideas, it is to push for a set of ideas to become reality. Of course it’s also no surprise that EUObserver falls for it hook, line and sinker.

At the opposite end of the spectrum of you have Bruegel. With Jean Pisani-Ferry, Nicolas Véron and André Sapir heading it these folks can really think. Bruegel also, as a point of principle, refuses to put its name on the EU lobby register. As reported by the Brussels Sunshine blog Matt Dann of Bruegel states “We are not lobbyists, so we will not register in a lobby register”. Bruegel is also open about its funding sources, something that’s not the case for other think tanks.

Muddying the waters still further are other Brussels players such as The Centre (Brussels’ First Think-Do Tank – so is the do actually lobbying?), the EPC that has joined the lobby register despite claiming to be a think tank, and the Friends of Europe / Forum Europe arrangement at the Bibliothèque Solvay that’s part lobby, part think tank, with a rather grey area in between.

In short all of this is a real mess. The term ‘think tank’ is banded about too readily and for the uninitiated which ones are supposed to be believed? Is a report on the telecoms market by a Brussels think tank really a think piece, or is it a quasi-academic re-hashing of Deutsche Telekom’s position?

[UPDATE – 25.03.2009]
European Tribune has more on the Open Europe issue – they have done some calculations on the ‘research’ that Open Europe released this week.

9 Comments

  1. Which is precisely why we need to get this right in Brussels – where the party political lines are far less clear, and public accountability it weaker.

  2. Corina Murafa

    Well John, that’s certainly a very European perspective. If you cross the Atlantic, the European fanaticism for objectivity doesn’t stand. People have beliefs and opinions, institutions likewise. All research has, besides a methodology, some theoretical ground. And that is definitely biased. And so it should be. Everybody on the Capitol Hill knows which think tank supports what party. And that’s perfectly natural and acceptable, without anybody complaining of any behind the curtain arrangements.

  3. Erik Wesselius

    A few years ago at Corporate Europe Observatory we conducted a survey of think tanks and our conclusion still stands. Even when some of the bigger think tanks provide transparency on their income sources, many of the smaller Brussels think tanks persist in funding secrecy.

  4. There’s a good review and attempt to map the think tank work done by Notre Europe: http://www.notre-europe.eu/uploads/tx_publication/Etud35-en.pdf

    M.

  5. I think the latter is a bit tough – EPC is trying to position itself in the same way as Bruegel (i.e. as a serious think tank) but has chosen a different route. I genuinely don’t know what the right route is – I can quite understand why Bruegel does not want to be on a lobby register, but openness is also really vital, so EPC is being honest in some way too.

    Is a think tank register the solution? Not sure…

  6. If you are looking for a definition of a think tank, then I would refer to Stanley Crossick’s article http://crossick.blogactiv.eu/2009/01/27/brussels-needs-more-strategic-thinking/

    However, you are more commentating on the poltitical role of think tanks. In this respect I believe your article would benefit from framing their role in other political systems and taking position vis à vis transparancy requirements.

    First of all, think tanks can be found everywhere. It is an ancient tradition in Europe and has more modern and powerful versions in the US. An interesting thing to note is also that every political party has it’s own ‘think tank’, which serves to determine the long and short-term policy direction of the party.

    And secondly Jon, I believe you should take a stance for transparancy. At the one hand you comment that some think tanks haven’t registered for the European Commission’s voluntary Register of interest representative and at the other hand you frame it is a negative point for the EPC: ‘as it is registered, so it must be a lobby organisation’, so the reader can interpret. On a sidenote, the EPC also completely discloses funding arrangements: http://www.epc.eu/en/mb.asp?TYP=Membership&LV=283&PG=MB/en/direct_in&AI=5&see=y

  7. Central Scrutiniser

    I can vote and/or I can contribute money to a think-tank-policy-institute-bus-campaign.

    But who can I trust?

  8. … and yes, when it comes to funding, there is a powerful whiff of hypocrisy from Open Europe. It frequently runs campaigns calling for more transparency in EU budgets but refuses to publish any information about its own funding. Does anyone know who does fund Open Europe?

  9. I’ve never been happy with the term think tank. I think it plays to the vanity of think tankers. As if their thoughts will somehow in and of themselves make the world a better place. Like monks in a monastery, spending all their time praying.

    Any policy institute will have its own blend of research and advocacy, some doing more research and others heavier on the advocacy side. I prefer the term advocacy over lobbying. For me advocacy is about ideas and policies, operating mostly at the macro level, lobbying is more focussed on micro decisions, new legislation, drafting of regulations etc, though I acknowledge the distinction is not absolultely clear.

    Make no mistake, Bruegel does plenty of advocacy and it would be failing in its mission if it didn’t. It also has a core philosphy about the free market, European integration and the mixed economy. Open Europe is more on the advocacy end of things, though it does do the occasional bit of research and/or polling as well. I think they both find their own places on the research-advocacy continuum.

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