The changing face of European think-tanks


The number of think-tanks in Europe has more than quadrupled in recent years, and they have become more active and inventive at disseminating policy solutions to decision-makers. But they are at risk of turning into lobbyists as they face issues related to funding, autonomy and innovation.

There has been a huge increase in the number of think-tanks in recent decades. The information revolution and the increasing complexity and technical nature of policy issues are among the main factors to have spurred this growth. 

A recent study by the Foreign Policy Research Institute (FPRI) estimates that the number of think-tanks in Europe has increased. The study puts the number of European bodies at 1,200, and asserts that over 5,000 are in operation worldwide. 

Most think-tanks in Europe have a national or sectoral focus, but this LinksDossier focuses mainly on those dealing with EU policymaking, be they located in Brussels or other countries. 

Indeed, the growth in the number of think-tanks has had a limited influence on EU policymaking. The majority of such bodies in Europe focus on EU policy discussions from national or sectoral perspectives, and as such do not generally seek to define the interests of the Union as a whole. 

The recent explosion and diversification of think-tanks has raised a number of issues related to autonomy, innovation, policy communication and globalisation. 

A diverse and complex sector

Think-tanks vary greatly in their approaches to influencing EU policymaking. Most Europe-based bodies put a lot of effort into developing new policy concepts and issuing position papers. In contrast, many in the United States, known as "advocacy think-tanks", are more committed to gaining media visibility and communicating their positions to decision-makers. 

Think-tanks have also become more complex. Although they have grown in number, the ways in which they are organised have become more diverse, and they are now much harder to recognise. 

To help distinguish think-tanks from one another, Stephen Boucher and Martine Royo, authors of a book entitled 'Les Think-tanks: Cerveaux de la Guerre des Idées', classify them into four groups. 

Academic think-tanks Research institutes working on contracts
  • Emphasise the quality of university research and the provision of information.
  • Staff members are academics, and typically hold doctorates.
  • Examples: Centre for European Policy Studies (CEPS).
  • Similar to university think-tanks, but they differ according to their funding sources, which come from contracts with government agencies or corporate support/memberships.
  • Examples: Notre Europe, Institut Français des Relations Internationales (IFRI).
Advocacy think-tanks Political party think-tanks/ foundations
  • To serve a cause, they produce ideas and recommendations that narrowly conform to particular values and a certain line of argument.  
  • Their interest lies not in finding the best policy solutions for the public good, like university think-tanks, but rather in winning the war of ideas.
  • Examples: Lisbon Council (LC), Centre for European Reform (CER).
  • Organised around a political party but intellectually autonomous, their work is often of direct use to the party. 
  • 'Think-tank' activity only comprises a small part of their overall budgets, but the significant funding at their disposal make for powerful 'ideas laboratories'.
  • Examples: The German 'Stiftungen', which are funded from the federal budget, but independent of the government.

Source: Boucher and Royo 

Funding: A balancing act

One of the main challenges for a think-tank is resisting the temptation to promote the interests of its donors. This can be a tricky balancing act, as it involves maintaining the independence of policy analyses, while at the same time securing funding from sponsors. 

Indeed, Boucher and Royo claim that think-tanks risk falling into the trap of turning into "submarines of private interests". This has been a concern, for example, for a number of think-tanks with US public or private funding, especially when they are not related to the established Washington think-tanks. 

Identifying the need to ensure greater transparency in the EU policymaking process and to restore citizens' confidence in governance, the European Commission launched a transparency initiative (European Transparency Initiative; ETI) in 2005. 

As part of the ETI, the EU executive launched a voluntary register for lobbyists and NGOs seeking to influence its policymaking in June 2008 (EURACTIV 24/06/08). The register discloses the names of organisations, rather than the names of individuals or those of whom they represent. 

Think-tanks are expected to register and publish their overall budgets. Their "main sources of funding, such as public [European, national or sub-national] funding, donations and membership fees" must also be indicated. 


Government-controlled think-tanks, such as the Bureau of European Policy Advisers, also encounter issues related to autonomy. 

For think-tanks that rely on contracts with government agencies like the European Commission, it is possible but difficult to be both creative and able to communicate recommendations while being out of step with official EU policy. 

Stanley Crossick, founder of the European Policy Centre, writes on Blogactiv that too many think-tanks at EU level "rely on government and Commission funding". Crossick believes this funding "should come from the private sector, as it does in the US". 

'Lack of innovative thinking'

Many think-tanks in the EU policymaking arena have also been criticised for staying within their own sectors and not mixing more with decision-makers and business leaders. 

Crossick says these parties form a "single class" in the US, while in Europe they form "three permanently separate groups". As a result, many of the subjects that think-tanks cover tend to overlap, hence cementing consensus and stifling creativity on EU policy ideas. 

To avoid this, Boucher and Royo stress that a regular turnover of researchers is crucial for genuinely renewal of ideas and for innovative thinking. They note that this is what ensures the vitality of American and British think-tanks, as they allow researchers and analysts to switch between government positions and the activities of reflection groups. They refer to this as the "revolving door phenomenon". 

A dumbing-down of ideas?

In the age of the Internet, gaining media visibility has also become a major priority for think-tanks. "Communication has become an important activity, as think-tanks nowadays must meet the need for timely and concise information and analysis in the right time," reads the FPRI study. 

The risk in this, however, is that complex policy messages that are generated by think-tanks tend to get watered down. Indeed, "the omnipresence of the media, with their appetite for two-minute interviews and shock phrases rather than analysis, pushes think-tanks to look for visibility by simplifying their message," Boucher and Royo write. 

Crossick argues that position papers are not enough to influence EU policymaking, and stresses that think-tanks need to "ensure that their views are expressed at the right time, in the right form and to the right people". 

It could be argued that policy portals like EURACTIV and its ten national affiliates help the EU and national think-tanks to convey their messages and outline their policy proposals without oversimplifying them. 

Towards cross-border ideas networks

The growth of think-tanks on a global level has been "explosive", the FPRI study argues, attributing this to the capacity of think-tanks to "support and sustain democratic governments and civil societies around the world". 

Moreover, demand for think-tanks has grown, because "policymakers throughout the developed and the developing world face the common problem of bringing expert knowledge to bear on governmental decision-making". 

Think-tanks in Europe have also been criticised for only adopting a national - rather than a European or global - perspective on policy discussions. 

Therefore, Boucher and Royo propose that think-tanks create "ideas networks" across national boundaries, in the mould of the European Policy Network (EPIN), for example. 

"More than ever, governments need clear and fitted ideas, which can help them to interpret the complexity of their environment and draw actions accordingly. More than ever, they need inspiration to tackle today's global challenges," the authors claim, hoping for a genuine dynamic revival of more reflective, forward-looking and visionary think-tanks. 

The war of ideas: US vs. Europe

Compared to the United States, Europe is poorly equipped to fight the war of ideas, allowing American think-tanks to lead the world in framing innovative and creative solutions to global challenges, the book asserts. 

Boucher and Royo claim that European research institutes seem stuck in their local environment and lack the ambition to devise ideas that could cast light on Europe-wide policies. 

But European think-tanks should also avoid some of the trappings of US think-tank practices. Although US think-tanks are better at communicating their messages via interactive websites and public events, James McGann, a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute (FPRI), says the media can impose a rhythm and a style of functioning that hinders American think-tanks' ability to produce prospective and innovative policies. 

Thus to win the war of ideas, think-tanks must tread a fine line between developing visionary policy solutions and keeping the public up-to-date on their positions. 

National differences

National differences also exist between think-tanks in Europe. German think-tanks tend to be of a university mould and come from that country's great academic and intellectual tradition, according to the book. 

Germany heavily relies upon professors to deliver influential reports, such as the 'Fünf Weisen Rat' (which provides economic analysis), and its think-tanks also train and support researchers and aspiring politicians, which gives them a lot of clout in Central European countries. 

UK think-tanks on European matters tend to follow Washington's method of close interaction with policymaking, although they have far fewer resources, and typically few permanent staff. British bodies have a significant impact on Brussels thinking due to their good communication methods. 

French think-tanks are relatively new, with a few exceptions. Traditionally, policy thinking was the domain of opinion-makers and governmental institutes. The French government now understands the importance of non-French think-tanks and appointed an official in Brussels to interact with them. 

US think-tanks have far greater resources and, for many of them, long-established credibility. Either directly from the US, and via their European affiliates, they exert great influence on policy thinking in Europe, and also serve as models for the establishment of new think-tanks. Some of these, like those funded by the Soros Foundation, cannot be considered purely American. 

Other countries have think-tanks and universities providing analysis of EU policy too. They tend to influence the European debate mainly via their own national circles or governments. Such bodies can at times be very influential. For example, in preparing for the Czech EU Presidency, Prague-based think-tanks such as Europeum probably provided more input than larger ones based in other countries. 

Jean Pisani-Ferry, director of the Bruegel think-tank, said Bruegel "seeks to invigorate the [policy] debate". 

"We know that some of our papers have helped to develop debates on social models, the Lisbon Strategy, national champions, immigration, the euro zone and Europe as a global actor. The success is in stimulating the debate, not to see proposal being taken up. We do not do lobbying," he declared. 

As for whether think-tanks should play a more active role in policymaking like they do in the US, Dr. James McGann, a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute (FPRI), warned that "the partisan approach in Washington has reached an hysterical level," to the extent that "think-tanks have been enrolled to provide ammunition in the battle between right and wrong". 

To ensure that think-tanks engage in long-term thinking, Antoine Garapon, formerly of the Saint Simon Foundation, said they "should invest in history, philosophy, anthropology, linguistics, and so many other areas that enable them to acquire a better understanding [of policy issues]". 

Regarding think-tank funding, Phillipe Herzog, a former MEP and director of Confrontations Europe, claimed that "everything is so highly concentrated in the French state apparatus that there are no means to finance independent thinking". 

"The Université Francaise is not rich enough and firms are not encouraged to finance research," he observes. 

Corporate Europe Observatory, a transparency NGO, is highly critical of some EU think-tanks, claiming that some of them "receive corporate sponsorship, but are in fact nothing more than corporate front groups". 

Think-tanks can no longer be considered as "universities without teaching" as in the past, argued EU Administration and Anti-Fraud Commissioner Siim Kallas at a European Policy Centre event (EURACTIV 20/04/09). 

"They have no students and they are not subjected to the system of peer review that academia uses to promote diversity of thought and scientific rigor," while "normal academic institutions are expected to conduct their research first and draw their conclusions second," he explained.

Recent debate has centred around the issue of whether think-tanks should sign up to the lobby register launched by the European Commission in June 2008.

When the registration scheme was conceived, "we clearly said that lobbying means 'all activities carried out with the objective of influencing the policy formulation and decision-making processes of the European institutions'," said Commissioner Kallas,  calling on more think-tanks to sign up.

"A separate category has been created for 'think-tanks', setting them clearly apart from 'public affairs professionals' and direct corporate interest representation. By joining the register, you would therefore not classify yourselves as a lobbyist," the commissioner later wrote in a letter to the Friends of Europe think-tank (EURACTIV 27/04/09). 

Responding to the commissioner's remarks, Friends of Europe Secretary-General Giles Merritt told EURACTIV that "we have no intention of signing up as lobbyists" and expressed surprise at Kallas's comments. 

"I personally object to being called a lobbyist. I have been in Brussels for thirty years and I have never once lobbied. I don't even know what a lobbyist does," he said.

"We don't lobby on anyone's behalf. We organise open debates on certain issues, about which everyone can have their say. If our sponsors want to have a say, then that's fine. We will invite [other participants] who will oppose them. It's an open political debate," Merritt added. 

The European Policy Centre, meanwhile, decided to sign up to the Commission's register.

European Policy Centre (EPC) Chief Executive Hans Martens said the Brussels-based think-tank's decision to sign up to the register had not been easy. "We don't think we're a lobby organisation, but didn't want people to wonder what we have to hide," he said. 

Describing the issue of whether or not think-tanks should register as a "fair question", Centre for European Reform Director Charles Grant told EURACTIV: "To be frank, we have not yet had time to take a view on this, having only just seen Kallas's comments." 

"We will discuss this internally, talk to a few other think-tanks, and then take a view on what we should do," Grant added. 

Eberhard Rhein, a lecturer at the Mediterranean Academy for Diplomatic Studies, told EURACTIV: "I am definitely of the view that think tanks like the EPC should not be included in the register. They do not campaign for certain issues, let alone specific business interests at the European Parliament or Council." 

"Anyhow, this registration of [business] lobbies in whatever register will not prevent them from influencing legislation or decisions taken by the EU," Rhein continued, adding: "The USA introduced such a register more than fifty years ago, and there is not another country in the world where lobbies have a stronger or more detrimental influence on legislation." 

"It would be better for the Commission and Vice-President Kallas to realise that we need subtler methods than a register to combat the often pernicious influence of powerful interest groups," he concluded. 

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