‘EU decision-making lacks public policy debates’

Leading independent Brussels think-tank the European Policy Centre (EPC) recently celebrated its tenth birthday. EPC Director and Founding Chairman Stanley Crossick talks to EURACTIV about harnessing think-tanks’ potential to reach out to EU citizens.

Stanley Crossick is the founding chairman and director of the European Policy Centre.

To read a shortened version of this interview, please click here.

The European Policy Centre just celebrated its 10th anniversary. How would you compare the Brussels think-tank  landscape now and then? 

Those organisations properly called ‘think-tanks’ or ‘research centres’ have been strengthened but very few new ones – other than national antennae – have opened.  The think-tank landscape has not, therefore, kept pace with the increased need for public policy debate. 

When you set up the EPC, with Max Kohnstamm and John Palmer, it was not as academic as some existing European think-tanks, and initially some people saw you more as a great networking organisation. What was the initial ambition, and is it fulfilled now? What would you have done differently with the benefit of hindsight?

The leitmotif of EPC was John Monnet’s axiom: “Thought cannot be divorced from action.” Although it became a great networking organisation, that was not uppermost in our minds at the outset.  Our objective was to promote further European integration generally and influence EU policies specifically, but not on behalf of special interests.  EPC has always been an independent think-tank and is not a representative organisation.  We never sought to be an ‘academic’ body but recognised the importance of underpinning our public policy advocacy with sound analysis by able in-house professionals, supplemented by outside experts in the EPC network.   

In your speech at the anniversary event, you quoted a recent Charlemagne 
in The Economist that compared the Brussels think-tanks unfavourably with their Washington cousins. What’s your reaction? 

Charlemagne is rightly critical of the relatively passive role of Brussels think-tanks.  EU decision-making lacks the underpinning of the type of public policy debate that exists in Washington.   In my view 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.

At the same event, Poul Nyrup Rasmussen (leader of the European Parliament socialist group and Danish former prime minister) stated that while think-tanks such as the EPC are good market places for ideas on Europe, actually member states are stronger than ever. How could policy debates in Brussels and in the capitals be better connected? How could better interaction with national politicians and media be achieved?

I’m not quite sure in what sense Poul means this.  The ultimate authority of the EU has always been the Council, made up of the member states.  There are many good national think-tanks that also address EU matters.  EPC networks strongly in the member states and frequently has joint activities with them.  It has always interacted with national politicians and media.

Most think-tanks on European policies work essentially in English, at least those that are based in Brussels. And the London organisations are quoted more often than, for example, German think-tanks, which actually produce many more papers. How could the language barrier be bridged? Can think-tanks do it themselves, or should they be helped by classical media or new web developments?

English has become the lingua franca in Europe.  The examples you cite highlight national, cultural differences.  British think-tank papers tend to be more mediatic than their German equivalents.  Think-tanks need to use all the communication tools available – in particular the electronic media and, of course, EURACTIV.

There is talk in EU circles about EU funding for European political foundations, based on the German model of one ‘Stiftung’ close to each party. This would also contribute to politicising debates and making them more interesting to national audiences. How likely is this to happen? Would it lead to existing think-tanks taking an even clearer and less consensual positioning?

There is more than talk of this.  It would politicise the policy debates but I’m not convinced that such foundations will necessarily successfully reach out to national audiences.  Eurobarometer polls show that political parties are very unpopular in most EU countries.   

At the Parliament’s initiative, the Commission seems to be thinking about better ways to support and spread EU policy debates, using new technologies. This may be inspired either by open citizen dialogues such as those that have animated French campaigns (referendum and presidential) or from extranet-type discussions between politicians and the media, moderated before feeding public debates. The discussion still seems very open: any recommendations?

While the efforts being made are to be commended, the EU institutions do not have a good record of successfully reaching out to the people.  Think-tanks, academic institutions and all the other constituents of the civil society need harnessing for this.  But they have to have financial support.  Unfortunately, the current financial regulations do not permit effective funding.

Subscribe to our newsletters