Which are the most influential think tanks in Brussels?

July 6th, 2016
by Vicky Cann

This is not a straightforward question to answer. As a newly-published and comprehensive article by Corporate Europe Observatory makes very clear, there are many problems with the way in which think tanks participate in the EU lobby transparency register. The category is imprecise and some think tanks would be better registered as NGOs, trade associations or research institutions. Meanwhile, some think tanks join the register but deny that they lobby and, as a result, declare such low levels of lobby spend that it is hard to reconcile this with the access they enjoy to the EU institutions. And some think tanks have still not joined the non-binding, voluntary lobby register at all.

Which think tanks have the highest EU lobby spend?

Usually, LobbyFacts would take declared lobby spending as a good indicator of influence in the Brussels bubble. However, this is not so straightforward when it comes to think tanks. According to the list of the top-spending think tanks below, at least half of the listed ten have likely over-reported their lobby spend, judging by their lack of high-level Commission meetings, combined with the lack of European Parliament access pass holders. Arguably, only Bruegel properly belongs on that list while the others are either better defined as another kind of organisation, or they have massively over-declared their lobby spend.

Table 1: organisations registered as think tanks, ranked according to declared lobby spend.

  Organisation Lobbying costs EP Passes Lobbyists (FTE) Commission meetings
1 FUNDACIÓ EURECAT €24,400,000 0 28 0
2 Horia Hulubei National Institute for Research & Development in Physics and Nuclear Engineering > €10,000,000 0 0.25 0
3 European Forest Institute €9,750,000 - 9,999,999 4 53.25 12
4 Wilton Park Executive Agency €5,217,609 0 50 0
5 The Brookings Institution €5,000,000 - 5,249,999 0 14.25 2
6 New Climate Economy €4,000,000 - 4,249,999 0 27.25 0
7 Bruegel €3,750,000 - 3,999,999 0 18.75 17
8 European Road Transport Telematics Implementation Coordination Organisation-Intelligent Transport Systems & Services Europe €3,000,000 - 3,249,999 0 27 3
9 Third Generation Environmentalism Ltd €2,782,638 5 25 27
10 Barilla Center for Food & Nutrition Foundation €2,500,000 - 2,749,000 0 3.25 1

Such over-reporting is an example of how, in too many cases, much of the data on lobbying expenses in the EU lobby register is not reliable.

Which think tanks have the most Commission lobby meetings?

Think tanks (or at least those that declare themselves to be think tanks in the lobby register) ranked according to those with the greatest number of high-level lobby meetings held with the European Commission since December 2014, provides some indication of EU lobby influence. Think tanks are prolific in meeting with the Commission elite and only NGOs, trade associations, and companies have had more meetings. And in the think tank world, the ability to access the Commission is concentrated; more than half of the meetings with high-level Commission staff involved only 20 think tanks, of a total of 471 in today’s register. The LobbyFacts database provides the following 10 think tanks with the most high-level Commission meetings:

Table 2: organisations registered as think tanks, ranked according to high-level Commission meetings held.

  Organisation Lobbying costs EP Passes Lobbyists (FTE) Commission meetings
1 Centre for European Policy Studies €9,999 3 50 28
2 Third Generation Environmentalism Ltd €2,782,638 5 25 27
3 Bruegel €3,750,000 - 3,999,999 0 18.75 17
4 Centre for European Reform €1,250,000 - 1,499,999 1 13 14
5 Friends of Europe €2,250,000 - 2,499,999 1 26.5 13
6 Atlantic Council €300,000 - 399,999 0 2.25 13
7 European Policy Centre €2,000,000 - 2,249,999 0 24 12
8 European Forest Institute €9,750,000 - 9,999,999 4 53.25 12
9 Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung €9,999 7 14 10
10 European Council on Foreign Relations €25,000 - 49,999 € 0 35 10

There are a lot of names familiar to those who operate in the Brussels bubble here and CEO’s new article takes an in-depth look at many of them, including the issues that they lobby on, and the corporate funding or links that they enjoy.

Think tanks: lobby actors in denial?

But it is important to note that in this second table, three organisations with a high level of lobby meetings declare annual lobby expenses of less than €50,000, with two declaring less than €9999. As the CEO article shows, there has been a historical reluctance for think tanks to join the register, and while most (but not all) are now on the register, many continue to declare low lobby spends alongside statements such as ‘we do not engage in the direct representation of interests’.

This is a highly questionable approach. Think tanks do meet with decision-makers and they do promote policy recommendations and ideas. Furthermore, as the CEO article demonstrates, some think tanks provide opportunities for their funders, often from the corporate sector, to interact with EU policy-makers. This all constitutes lobbying, direct and / or indirect, even if the think tanks don’t recognise it as such. Such under-reporting by think tanks could be prevented if all organisations lobbying the EU were legally obliged to register, and provide full and complete declarations.

So, for the category of think tanks, a plausible answer to the question which are the most influential, will include some with surprisingly low declared lobby spends. If we look at those holding the most high-level Commission meetings and additionally filter out those that might be better categorised as NGOs or other types of organisation, we get some way towards identifying the most influential think tanks operating in the Brussels bubble today.

Table 3: LobbyFacts’ list of the most influential think tanks in Brussels, based on high-level Commission meetings held.

  Organisation Lobbying costs EP Passes Lobbyists (FTE) Commission meetings
1 Centre for European Policy Studies €9,999 3 50 28
2 Bruegel €3,750,000 - 3,999,999 0 18.75 17
3 Centre for European Reform €1,250,000 - 1,499,999 1 13 14
4 Friends of Europe €2,250,000 - 2,499,999 1 26.5 13
5 Atlantic Council €300,000 - 399,999 0 2.25 13
6 European Policy Centre €2,000,000 - 2,249,999 0 24 12
7 European Council on Foreign Relations €25,000 - 49,999 0 35 10
8 Open Europe €25,000 - 49,999 0 8 9
9 Istituto per la Competitività 100,000 - 199,999 € 5 7 7
10 Policy Network and Communications Ltd €9,999 0 0.25 7

NB. All data from the LobbyFacts database on 6 July 2016. Some figures may vary from the original CEO article; this article uses the LobbyFacts database while the original CEO article refers to published data on IntegrityWatch, which were last updated in March 2016.

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