EurActiv - Letters to the Editor

Sir,

Regarding ‘Think tanks should ‘think European’ to fight global challenges‘ :

I can only concur with the comment of Stephen Boucher and Martine Royo that “think tanks should think European to fight global challenges”.

Their recommendation is equally valid in Brussels as illustrated by the following (excerpt from G. Fayl & U. Fayl von Hentaller, ‘More Realism, Fewer Illusions’, included in ‘The Challenges of the XXI Century’, Polish Association for the Club of Rome, Warsaw, 2008):

Optimally, Brussels based think tanks should provide realistic and inspiring advice, and ‘ring the bell’ in time when the EU system needs a helping hand.

The situation on the ground is quite different. Stanley Crossick recently painted a gloomy picture of Brussels think tanks compared to similar bodies in Washington, D.C. The Europeans ones suffer from structural disadvantages and are badly funded. In most cases it reflects their practical merits [Crossick: ‘Passive Brussels think tanks lack public policy debates‘, EurActiv, 17 July 2007].

According to Crossick, “EU decision-making lacks the underpinning of the type of public policy debate that exists in Washington.”

There are four principal reasons for this. First, political, think-tank and business leaders in Washington interchange within a single ‘class’, whereas they form three permanently separate groups in Europe.

Second, European Union decision-makers do not seem to value think-tank input to the degree that it is valued in America.

Third, European think tanks are more reticent than their US counterparts in seeking to influence decision-making.

And the final reason is that private-sector financial support for think tanks is very limited compared with the United States. The insufficient role played by think-tanks is one of the reasons why there is so little strategic thinking in Brussels.

The authors of the article cited below concur with the following less-than-encouraging analysis of the situation: “Given the importance of decisions taken by the European Union, both the level and quality of public debate in the EU capital are depressingly low”.

Furthermore: “Too many think tanks spend their time offering straight commentary on the Brussels machine. In Washington, think tanks thrive not by reacting to the usual political process, but by supplying it with ‘the next big idea’. In Brussels analysts are sometimes said to be too outspoken […] In Washington, if you’re not outspoken, people will not listen to you.” [Charlemagne, The think tanks that missed the target, The Economist, 7 July 2007]

Those who are not occupied with chasing EU funds observe that most think tanks in Brussels – with very few exceptions – have voluntarily limited their roles to watching and commenting events. Hardly ever do they do any scientific analysis, and even more seldom forward-looking analysis.

This explains why it has become good Latin to pick-up from time-to-time opportune catchwords with limited (or without) scientific foundation, or out of reach, like ‘most competitive and dynamic knowledge-based economy within ten years’.

In the absence of discerning debate, buzzwords get their own life and remain hanging in the Brussels environment and its gravitational pool. At least until a new buzzword drops down from the political Parnas.

In the meantime, visitors from Parnas publicly explain from time-to-time the meaning behind the words. And think tanks and others dutifully listen.

One can’t avoid getting the impression that in Brussels the potential value of active and forward-looking think tanks and academic bodies is greatly under-estimated and under-utilised, or putting it more bluntly, largely overlooked and even undesired.

This is disappointing. Think tanks and academic bodies could be of great help in engaging civil society in EU-related dialogue.

But these organisations would need adequate funding without political strings attached – and without time-consuming bureaucratic procedures. Although admittedly, more funds by themselves are no assurance of better and more strategic thinking.

Yours,

Dr. Gilbert Fayl

Secretary of External Affairs

European Academy of Sciences and Arts

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