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Think tanks in Europe: Rising, Peaking, or...

21 febbraio 2017

Think tanks in Europe: Rising, Peaking, or Declining?

Growing in number, but what about influence?

The number of think tanks in Brussels has risen sharply over the last years [1]. The European Commission’s Bureau of European Policy Advisers (BEPA) [2] related the recent growth and development of the Brussels think tank environment to the growing significance of the EU capital as a centre for policy formulation. With its intense concentration of policy-makers, businessmen, lobbyists, as well as the media, only Washington D.C. compares to Brussels as a place where think tanks fundraise, network, disseminate ideas, shape and influence political debates. The Europe for Citizens Programme, for instance, suggests that think tanks are “invaluable in providing visions for the future, as well as generating ideas and recommendations on how to approach complex issues, such as EU policies, active European citizenship, identity and values” [3] .

However, Diane Stone has recently argued that if the last century was characterized by the growth of the think tank sector worldwide, this century may forebode their decline [4]. Given this, should we conclude the rise of the influence of European think tanks from the continuous growth of their number or just consider it a prelude to their decay?

Engaging with EU policy-making

On the one hand, this growth in think tanks over the last years could be connected to the recent period of economic crisis. For instance, a number of European think tanks turned away from national issues in order to compete over policy propositions to prevent a collapse of the Euro zone [5].

On the other hand, the European Commission itself shaped the activity of European think tanks through financial support in different forms, including through its Framework Programmes and contracts with Directorates-General. For example, the ‘Europe for Citizens’ programme [6] provides operating grants for European public policy research organisations (think tanks) and for civil society organisations at European level.

Another possible explanation of development of think tanks could be phenomenon of the “revolving door”, which concerns persons changing positions between government and think-tanks, typical for the United States, where a lot of political jobs are available due to the regular change of governments after the presidential elections [7]. Although it is still not common in Europe [8], Corporate Europe Observatory [9] considers, that it is possible to speak about “typical EU career” when certain lobbyists or think tankers working in the EU quarter are resigned officials from the EU institutions or national governments, whereas others aspire to be appointed to the position in the European or national authorities. From the one hand, the potential implication of personnel exchange between sectors is “skill building”, when one sector prepare qualified personnel who can be then employed by another sector [10]. From the other hand, this phenomenon could contribute to the rise of think tank influence, giving possibility to have a particular access to policy-makers, however, it could call into question their independence in case of their too close association or significant EU financing.

The growth of think tanks has taken place along with appeals for more transparency of the engagement of the EU institutions with external stakeholders. In spite of wide polemics, think tanks were finally impelled to register at the joint European Transparency Register launched by the European Commission and the European Parliament in 2011 in order to ensure data on all those looking for influence over policy-making in the EU [11] . The Alliance for Lobbying Transparency and Ethics Regulation (ALTER-EU) argued that due to its voluntary character many lobby groups including some think tanks have not joined it [12]. Consequently, the European Commission in 2016 proposed a mandatory Transparency Register covering the European Parliament, the Council and the Commission [13] . Despite some initial resistance among certain structures, majority of think tanks realized that registration with the EU transparency register could not only facilitate their access to policy-makers, but also enhance their public image.

Maintaining publicity in “European public sphere”

Besides initiatives aiming to foster transparency of think tanks, there is also a growing industry of think tank rankings and awards in spite of existing difficulties to evaluate the real impact of the think tanks on decision-making processes. European think tanks use their rank in the Global Go-To Think Tank Index [14] compiled by the US University of Pennsylvania as a type of publicity and self-advertising, despite some concerns of its methodology [15] . Moreover, the European players entered the think tank evaluation “market”. The Prospect Magazine [16] in the UK annually organises a contest with stronger UK focus; however, there are categories which evaluate European and US think tanks. The Observatoire des think tanks in France also created its award ceremony of think tanks. Having opened its offices in Barcelona and in Brussels it affirmed its “international vocation” [17] .

These developments could imply the durability of the think tanks in contemporary political processes, as well as public concern about their standards and responsibility [18] . Not going into details concerning the possibilities of such rankings to determine the impact of think tanks, as well as interests behind, we can see that this trend shows not only the increased popularisation of the activity of think tanks in Europe from the part of academia, media and civil society, but also their growing institutionalisation in the emerging “European public sphere” [19] .

Obviously, Brussels-based EU think tanks, due to their situation in the center of EU policy-making activity possess higher level of visibility on the supranational level compared to their national counterparts. Taking this factor into account, several national think tanks have also created their Brussels offices. However, launching and maintaining think tank activities at the EU-scale can be quite expensive, especially since the think tank industry itself was also affected by economic crisis. For instance, the European think tank FRIDE, based in Madrid and Brussels stopped its activities on 31st December 2015, citing financial reasons [20]. Furthermore, the progress in information and communication technologies has opened the possibility to replace a physical presence in Brussels with a virtual one. This is, however, a risky decision as almost in the internet age can become a “media intellectual” and compete with think tanks in providing policy analysis online.

Networking beyond the nation borders

Alternative strategy to virtual presence in Brussels could be think tank collaboration, which increasingly exceeds the nation borders by establishing international networks, which involve the EU-based think tanks as well as think tanks from other countries. A format of such networks varies from informal networks such as Brussels Think Tank Dialogue or Think Global - Act European (TGAE) project of the Jacques Delors Institute [21] to formal international associations with a secretariat and large membership, such as the European Policy Institute Network (EPIN) [22] coordinated by the Brussels-based CEPS or the Trans European Policy Studies Association (TEPSA) [23].

The cross-border policy networks which further public debates in Brussels and member-states are growing in importance taking into account particular multinational, multi-lingual and multilevel characteristics of the EU policy conditions. Such transnational networks give possibility to EU think tanks to obtain wider insights on European questions and include various points of view on EU policy areas [24] . However, although successful networking helps think tanks to foster policy ideas more effectively, it is not equivalent to political influence, because intensive activity generated by networks does not certainly convert into policy. Think tank networks can even attenuate the organisational impact of individual think tanks, which becomes distributed among network members and network as an association [25] , but the process can also go in the opposite direction thanks to multiplying effect.

Coming back to the presage of Diane Stone, we can see that current trends in think tank development in Europe can represent both challenge and opportunity for them, however, the decline or increase in influence of this type of organization in the future will depend on their capacities to turn the former into the latter, which would involve not only their usual “business”: “thinking the unthinkable”, but also “doing the undoable”.

Tatyana Bajenova
Doctoral Research Fellow, ENS de Lyon, France (European project UNIKE http://unike.au.dk/, EU-Marie Curie fellowship, 2013-2016)


[1Plehwe, D., 2010. Paying the piper – think tanks and lobbying. In: ALTER-EU, 2010. Bursting Brussels Bubble the EU: the battle to expose corporate lobbying at the heart of the EU. Brussels, 53-67. https://www.alter-eu.org/book/bursting-the-brussels-bubble

[2Since 2014 BEPA was transformed into the European Political Strategy Centre (EPSC)

[4Stone, D., 2013. Knowledge actors and transnational governance. Private-public policy nexus in the global agora. Palgrave Macmillan.

[5Boucher, S., Royo, M., 2012. Les think tanks : cerveaux de la guerre des idées. Paris : Éd. du Félin-Kiron.

[7Rich A., Weaver K., 2011. Think Tanks in the Political System of the United States. In: Think Tanks in Policy Making – Do They Matter? Briefing Paper Special Issue. Shanghai: Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung Shanghai Office, 16-25.

[8BEPA (Bureau of European Policy Advisers), European Commission, 2012. European think tanks and the EU. Edited by Antonio Missiroli and Isabelle Ioannides. Berlaymont Paper, Issue 2

[9Corporate Europe Observatory (CEO), 2011. Lobby Planet Brussels – the EU quarter, https://corporateeurope.org/power-lobbies/2011/09/putting-brussels-lobbyists-map

[10Lewis, D., 2010. Encountering hybridity: Lessons from individual experiences. In Billis D. (ed) (2010) Hybrid Organizations and the Third Sector: Challenges for Practice, Theory and Policy, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

[11BEPA, 2012, op. cit.

[12ALTER-EU, 2012. Dodgy Data: Time to Fix the EU’s Transparency Register, https://www.alter-eu.org/press-releases/2012/06/25/lobbyists-register-fails-to-improve-transparency

[13European Commission, 2016. Proposal for a Interinstitutional Agreement on a mandatory Transparency Register. Brussels, 28.9.2016, COM (2016) 627 final. http://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/EN/TXT/?uri=COM:2016:627:FIN

[18Stone D., 2013, op. cit.

[19Barani L. and Sciortino G., 2011. WP5.1 – The Role of Think Tanks in the articulation of the European Public Sphere, Eurosphere online working paper series.

[24Ullrich, H., 2004. European Union Think Tanks: generating ideas, analysis and debate. In: Stone D., Denham A. (eds.) (2004). Thinks tanks traditions. Policy Research and the Policy of Ideas, Manchester University Press, Manchester, 51-68.

[25Stone, D., 2004. Introduction: think tanks, policy advice and governance. In: Stone D., Denham A. (eds.) (2004). Thinks tanks traditions. Policy Research and the Policy of Ideas, Manchester University Press, Manchester, 1-16; Stone D., 2013, op.cit.

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