Long-term EU thinking: a history of abandoned think tanks

Frankly Speaking

Picture of Giles Merritt
Giles Merritt

Founder of Friends of Europe

Giles Merritt traces the mixed fortunes of in-house Commission think tanks, and urges greater emphasis on strategic analysis and planning.

How far ahead does the EU think? In today’s fast-changing world is the European Commission’s responsibility to head off tomorrow’s crises, or to focus on hugely disruptive troubles brewing over the horizon?

Obviously it’s both. The grim post-Covid geo-economic outlook will require far greater intra-EU cohesion than seen for many years, but what about 2030 and beyond?

The shifting tectonic plates of global economic power and political influence are plain to see. Less so, perhaps, are the ineluctable changes taking shape within ageing Europe. The EU’s demographic upheaval is going to demand sweeping new policies, yet the difficult choices involved are insufficiently highlighted by the Brussels commission.

The EU needs blue-sky, out-of-the-box thinking that can counter-balance its conventional roles

With its wealth of resources, the commission should be setting out the options available to its 27 member states in a future that will see markedly fewer working age people, fewer taxpayers and many more pensioners. Southern and eastern Europe will be hit the hardest, so unless ageing is tackled determinedly it risks creating divergences that could tear the EU apart.

But the commission looks to be backing away from identifying these challenges. For reasons never satisfactorily explained, when she took over as president Ursula von der Leyen scrapped the in-house think tank set up to do precisely that by her predecessor Jean-Claude Juncker.

The European Political Strategy Centre was established to cut through red-taped reporting lines and give advice directly to the top. Run by Ann Mettler, a commission outsider who had worked for the World Economic Forum that organises the Davos meetings, it quickly gained a reputation for incisive and forthright analysis.

The EU needs blue-sky, out-of-the-box thinking that can counter-balance its conventional roles. But its track record on doing so is patchy, spanning four decades of unending bureaucratic tussles. A key part of Jacques Delors’ drive to shake up the EU was the ‘cellule de prospective’ inside his private office. Headed by the brilliantly iconoclastic Jerôme Vignon, its favoured target was conventional thinking – the “pensée unique” that Delors derided.

Later, José Manuel Barroso revived an in-house advisory unit, but perhaps because his Bureau of European Policy Advisors was largely staffed by fellow Portuguese, it lacked wider impact. Much the same fate risks being shared by IDEA, von der Leyen’s brainchild. Its acronym stands for Inspire, Debate, Engage and Accelerate Action, but judging by the commission’s website it has so far has failed to embody these ambitions.

These should be a model for other EU researchers, but their succinct and unambiguous style is all too rare

The EU knows how to get tough messages across to the general public, but it uses this skill selectively and avoids areas that risk embroiling it in political conflict. For instance, its recent blunt warnings of the dangers of global wealth concentration contrast with a far blander analysis of the perils of European ageing.

“Ten companies control most of the world’s food supply; four airlines control 80% of the market, five banks control 50% of the industry; six companies almost the entire mixed-media industry,” the commission’s Joint Research Centre (JRC) reported not long ago, adding that on present trends the world’s top 0.1% will by mid-century own more wealth than the entire global middle class.

The JRC’s chief focus is science and innovation, where it often does useful and original work. Another ideas factory is the European Parliament’s Research Service, which publishes accessible and highly readable reports. These should be a model for other EU researchers, but their succinct and unambiguous style is all too rare.

A newly published JRC report on the territorial diversity of ageing across the EU could arguably have had a major impact if it had been couched as robustly as its global wealth study. Instead, its lengthy analysis lamely concluded that “policy actions have a limited ability to affect demographic trends.”

To up its game on forward thinking, the commission should take to heart the comments of John Hawksworth, PwC’s chief economist. “A long-term view is crucial,” he has warned, “when planning for issues like pensions, healthcare, energy and climate change, housing, transport and other infrastructure investments…..long-term growth projections can actually be more reliable than short-term forecasts.”

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