A month ago we praised European Commissioner Kallas in this blog for his insistence that think tanks must join the lobby transparency register, as their activities are aimed clearly at influencing EU decision-making. In a speech last week, Commissioner Kallas restated this very clearly and highlighted the example of Friends of Europe, which – like most other Brussels-based think tanks – boycotts the Commission’s voluntary register. The events organised by this Brussels-based think tank are routinely sponsored by corporations and clearly intended as lobbying opportunities. Kallas mentioned the example of the Friends of Europe debate that will take place next week on investing in Africa’s growth and health. The event, which involves the EU Development Commissioner, MEPs and other decision-makers, is sponsored by French oil giant Total. In return for the sponsorship, two company speakers appear as panelists.
Kallas’ remarks sparked an angry reaction from Friends of Europe boss Giles Merritt, who sent out a press release challenging Kallas to debate with him “at a time and with other speakers of his choosing”. The press release ignores Mr. Kallas” arguments for why think tanks should register. Instead Merritt rhetorically states that think tanks have “major reservations about volunteering to classify themselves as lobbyists when they so clearly are not”.
It is very ironic for Mr. Merritt to make these claims. He – if anyone – embodies the emergence of a type of think tanks in the Brussels EU quarter that are far removed from the classic notion of think tanks as providers of the kinds of innovative ideas that vested political and economic interests often cannot deliver. Friends of Europe and the Security & Defense Agenda, two think tanks founded by Mr. Merritt, look more like service providers for their wealthy corporate membership, providing them with a platform for influencing EU decision-makers. For example, Friends of Europe offers VIP members Visibility - Input - Platform for 6500 € per year.
Mr. Merritt is a veteran think tank entrepreneur, who in the 1990s ran the Philip Morris Institute for Public Policy Research, a think tank that was very obviously linked to one (very controversial) corporate sponsor. Merrit also founded Forum Europe in 1989 and Friends of Europe in 1999. In 2003, he established the New Defence Agenda, a think tank designed specifically for the arms industry which signed up in large numbers as ‘partners’. In a brochure distributed in 2004, the New Defence Agenda offered arms corporations to host conferences on issues of their choice, in return for a fee of 25,000 euro. For 30,000 euro they could get a “Tailor-made Discussion Paper” published by the New Defence Agenda. The think tank has later been renamed Security & Defence Agenda.
In the press release, Mr. Merrit claims that Friends of Europe and other think tanks have no problems with financial transparency. The reality, however, is that information about funding sources is still nowhere to be found on the Friends of Europe website.
Mr. Merritt should be the first to acknowledge that most Brussels-based think tanks are heavily dependent on corporate membership and sponsorship and in practice often act as a platform through which these firms hope to shape or influence the debate about EU decision-making. For large corporations, sponsoring a think tank activity is one of numerous channels available in their lobbying strategies (in addition to in-house lobbying, working via industry coalitions, hiring a lobby consultancy, advertising, etc.). In the Commission’s definition ‘lobbying’ means “all activities carried out with the objective of influencing the policy formulation and decision-making processes of the European institutions.” The proximity between think tanks a la Merritt and the lobby consultancy sector was illustrated by the merger last year of Forum Europe and Epsilon Events, creating “the largest EU affairs-dedicated events management outfit in Brussels”.
Kallas is completely right that think tanks, not the least those set up by Mr. Merritt, must join the register so their role in EU lobbying becomes visible. It will be worth watching how Commissioner Kallas reacts to Merritt’s challenge. If anything, it should makes Kallas rethink his voluntary approach to transparency.