European Risk Forum and other think tank stories – end of year potpourri

While everyone is settling down for the end of the year, we use the occasion to reflect for a moment on important stories related to think tanks in policy matters and we happily introduce the latest addition to the Austrian landscape of think tanks.

When Ursula von der Leyen, the new Commission President, presented her Green Deal statement to the public in early December, the lobby group “European Risk Forum” was suffering a setback. The group refers to itself as an “expert-led, not-for-profit think tank that … supports high-quality risk assessment and risk management decisions by the EU institutions and … raises awareness of risk management issues at the EU level.” Members from chemical, pharmaceutical and tobacco industries among others qualify the expert-led and not-for profit character. The group officially declares 2.5 lobbyists and lobby expenses between 50.000 Euros and 99.999 Euros. The industry related experts had hoped the incoming president would adopt the „innovation principle“ advocated by the ERF for EU legislation. The group had campaigned hard to add the new principle to EU legislation, which would require an assessment of the impact of new laws on innovation. So far, the precautionary principle requires an assessment of risks in EU legislation concerning food, human, animal and plant health. Industry forces are critical of the precautionary principle because of the alleged slowing down effect on innovation. The “innovation principle” was considered an antidote. It did not help the European Risk Forum that tobacco companies belong to the core constituency, however, and the effort to conceal the origins of the campaign did not help either. But the paper shows many traces of industry lobby influence according to Germany’s business weekly Wirtschaftswoche and the term innovation appears no less than 16 times in the Commission Communication. Efforts similar to the ERF campaign in the EU can be observed in member countries. In Germany, the liberals of the Free Democratic Party introduced a proposal for an innovation principle in German legislation in April 2019. The lobby forces of the European Risk Forum include key German players in Chemicals and Biotech, such as BASF and Bayer. see the full list here.

The evidently multipronged effort at national and EU levels of legislation turn decade old work of neoliberal think tanks on supply side and innovation economics into a policy instrument. It will be interesting to see if there are legislatures already that have adopted the “innovation principle” in the individual member states. In Germany, the Greens countered the FDP proposal with a proposal for the precautionary principle as innovation driver.

think tank as career obstacle – failed Commission candidate Sylvie Goulard (internal market)

The European Parliament (EP) takes its job to control the European Commission serious. Among the candidates not accepted for the incoming Commission was Syvie Goulard, the candidate proposed by president Macron for the Directorate General internal market. Goulard was not able to explain the monthly income of 10-12.000 Euros she received from the Berggruen Institute between 2013 and 2016. Berggruen Institute is a think tank founded by billionaire and investor Nicolas Berggruen. Berggruen maintains close relations to several former heads of government and presidents around the world who can help the institute and the investor to get easy access to relevant policymaking circles in their countries and in global institutions.The Parliaments move against Goulard is an important stance for transparency and against secret influences because it needs to be assumed that a salary from a private institute backed by an investor similar to the pay she receives as an MEP serves to pay for lobby activities. This may have been the first time a think tank position has been challenged in such a way in Europe. Why does the EP not require mandatory information on salaries of all think tank staff and advisers and other transparency measures for think tanks, which are standard practice in the United States?

UK elected Boris Johnson – with a little help from American friends

In the Brexit drama, it may still be underappreciated that neoliberal and conservative think tank networks played a huge role in mobilizing opinion in favor of Brexit and the Tories. The links between the U.S. based headquarter of the Atlas network and important U.S. and British members of Atlas like the Heritage Foundation, the Institute of Economic Affairs and the Legatum Institute have been investigated by reporters for the Guardian. Apart from the most recent mobilization the article shows the long term strategic involvement and the relevance of the global coordination of the Atlas think tank network.  But wait a moment: Aren’t neoliberals in favor of free markets across nation states and advocate the free movement of capital, labor, goods and services? Is the EU emphasis on market freedom not an important addition to the roaster of neoliberal forms of governance? Should dedicated neoliberals not support the EU? Well, not necessarily. Right wing Tory networks such as the Bruge Group or Neoliberal think tanks like the Center for New Europe opposed deeper European Integration since the early 1990s, and led the movement in favor of partial disintegration (get rid of social and environmental European policy in particular) if not exit, because the EU was moving towards political, possibly even social union.. In 2016, the Institute for Economic Affairs claimed “Hayek would have been a Brexiteer.” A more thorough analysis on the ambiguous relationship between neoliberals and European integration and the role of neoliberal think tanks with a Eurosceptic flavour can be found here.

In the context of Brexit and the last round of British elections, another conservative think tank made headlines. The think tank Onward advised the Johnson team to target especially the “workington man”, symboling old men in left behind places, which have voted for Labour all their life that The strategy apparently worked. The “red wall” in Northern England has crumbled in the recent elections even if Labour’s loss is partly due to the majoritarian voting system.

China experts with dubious credentials on German TV

The plight of the Chinese Muslim Uighur minority has been in the limelight in recent weeks. Criticism advanced by Arsenal’s Mezut Özil led to the cancellation of the broadcast in China of the recent match between Arsenal and Manchester City, for example, a decision taken by the Chinese public TV. No doubt there is good reason to be concerned about the human rights of Uighurs and the problematic record of the Chinese government with regard to minorities and opposition movements. Yet one China expert presented in German TV appears to have a background, which raises questions regarding his expertise. Germany’s critical online media journal Nachdenkseiten. investigated interesting details not presented in the media about the German national Adrian Zenz. Zenz has been introduced as the expert on Chinese Muslims in German TV. His affiliation in Germany is with the European School of Culture and Theology, an obscure organization in academic terms, which belongs to the World Missions Academy. This global evangelical mission umbrella includes the Chinese Missions community. Zenz is also affiliated with the Columbia International University, another evangelical bible school in Columbia, South Carolina, which offers courses to obtain an online Ph.D., again an obscure school in academic terms. Zenz is also a senior fellow at the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation, which belongs to the phalanx of anti-communist cold war organizations. While all these background infos on Zenz do not per se disqualify his contributions, his affiliations cast doubt on some dimensions of the interest in the plight of the Uighures. For an investigative report on the Chinese detention system see the recent China cables.

Last but not least: Welcome Austria’s Momentum Institute!

Following years of organizing the Momentum Congress in Hallstatt and the establishment of the Momentum Journal, Barbara Blaha and colleagues have opened the doors of the Momentum Institute in Vienna. The new think tank is committed to the interests of “the many”. The focus is on social and economic policy issues. Much like the Hallstatt Congress, the institute aims to integrate academic and non-academic audiences. The organization has a staff of eight and produces a wide range of analytic, academic and journalistic work. In a way this organization can be considered a think tank of the next generation considering the presence on social media, videos, podcasts, tweets and all that.