Monday, 22 December 2008

Will think tanks get away with boycotting the register?

The director of the Centre for European Policy Studies (CEPS) Staffan Jerneck told lobbyists at the recent European Agenda Summit he had “never thought" about registering his think tank in the Commission's register of interest representatives. His audience found his comment amusing, but it was also remarkable given that the Commission has stated very clearly that it “takes a broad view of 'lobbying', including public affairs consultancies, corporate lobbyists and law firms to NGOs and think tanks.”

The Commission deserves praise for taking a broad definition of lobbying and including think tanks in the register.

Think tanks are one of a broad range of tools used by large corporations to influence EU decision-making. In a recent article, the Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad pointed out that there are now more than 40 think tanks in the EU quarter, effectively carrying out lobbying work. Lobbying is often seen as a dirty word, but exercising influence through a think tank is far more respectable. The Commission estimates there are 63 Brussels-based think thanks that ought to register.

But Jerneck's comment reflects the reality: none of the major think tanks in Brussels have yet registered. Most of the nine think tanks that have currently registered are not based in Brussels and are not actually think tanks at all but would be more at home in other categories.

One of the very few real EU-focused think tanks in the register is the Lisbon Council, which from its offices in the Residence Palace promotes free-market reforms. It has voluntarily declared that it received 110,000 euros in EU funding and 358,500 euros in donations in 2008. Its corporate backers include Accenture, Allianz, Google, IBM, ING group, KBC group, Lehman Brothers, Morgan Stanley, Oracle, Philips, Royal Dutch Shell, Schlumberger Carbon Services, Siemens and Tesco.

Considering how very little information is actually requested by the Commission, it is astonishing that high-profile Brussels think tanks like the European Policy Center, Friends of Europe, Center for European Policy Studies and Bruegel simply seem to ignore the register. These large think tanks are all heavily depending on corporate donations and sponsorship, but also now publish much of this information on their websites.

Less surprising is the non-registration by the growing category of radical free-market think tanks in the Brussels EU quarter, most of which run their activities on more discreet corporate donations. In 2005 and 2006 when CEO carried out surveys to assess the financial transparency of EU focused think tanks, bodies like the Centre for the New Europe, the European Enterprise Institute, Institut Economique Molinari, Institut Thomas More Brussels and the International Council for Capital Formation were among the think tanks that refused to disclose their funding sources. That they are not on the register is no surprise.

Only a mandatory register with sanctions for non-compliance would make these think tanks disclose their corporate backers.

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