The role of think tanks in shaping EU policies

One can hardly imagine a more challenging policy making process than that of the EU. This is what makes the role of think tanks so important.

There are various institutions on the Old continent which employ highly
educated people to think about our societies and to study social, political,
economic and environmental issues. Traditionally, universities and later
academies of science and research institutes, attracted smart people whose role
was to develop new thinking about human affairs and to explain to power-holders
and the public what is really going on in our societies and what is likely to
happen in the future.

Many of these institutions, universities in particular, became the model for
the New continent, which eventually turned them into centers of excellence with
global significance. In return, the dynamic and entrepreneurial United States invented a specific type of policy
institution which, in recent decades has started to take root and grow in
significance in Europe.

In the 1950s the Americans labeled these entities with a strange but catchy
name which is difficult to translate into other languages. They called them
“think tanks”. Today there are hundreds of them on both sides of the Atlantic
and they play an important role in shaping policies in Europe, America
and beyond. European policymakers can hardly overlook their activities.
Sometimes, think tanks are viewed as helpful allies, sometimes as problematic
critics who not only have the capacity to see deeply into the decision-making
arena, but can also raise the profile of a particular issue, reach out to a
broader public and have an influence on policy.

Think tanks, are mostly small or mid-sized, independent institutions whose
purpose is to study and analyze policies, generate new ideas and data,
stimulate expert and public debate, advocate for particular socio-political
changes, and educate a specific audience about a policy idea or issue. They are
a quintessential outgrowth of modern, democratic and open societies, though
they do sometimes have a presence in more closed and restrictive political

“Think-tankers” are often well-known experts from a variety of backgrounds –
political scientists, sociologists, journalists, economists, lawyers,
historians, foreign policy and military experts, environmentalists etc.
Whatever their backgrounds they are united by having strong analytical
capacities and the ambition to have an impact on public policy. Frequently they
bring with them practical experience from the governmental and diplomatic
services or from the world of management and media. This gives them an
advantage in understanding the practical aspects of policy making and policy
shaping. This also makes them different from the universities whose primary
role is to teach and conduct research. From my own experience, I can attest
that one of the last things a think tank wants to hear from a potential donor
is that one’s proposal is “too academic”. What this means is that the donor is
unconvinced that a prospective project could have an impact on policy.

One can hardly imagine a more challenging policy making process than that
which engages the most complex and largest union of states in the world – the
European Union. The EU, comprising half a billion inhabitants and currently
made up of twenty seven member states with the prospect of more to follow,
allows multiple public and private actors to participate in the debate about its
internal and external policies. Among the most visible and effective private
players contributing to the EU policy discussion are the think tanks. They do
not merely have a presence in the old member states. They have quickly become
an indispensible and important part of civil society in all of the newly
democratic countries of Central and Eastern Europe,
of which ten have already joined the EU. Some think tanks operate on a country
specific basis (e.g. national institutes of public affairs, institutes of international
relations, economic centers ), others have regional outreach (e.g. the European
Stability Initiative, operating in several countries and focusing on the
Balkans, or Polish/International CASE-Center for Economic and Social Research
focusing on Central and Eastern Europe). Still
others deal with European and international issues (e.g. the Center for
European Policy Studies, the European Policy Center and the Bruegel, in
Brussels; the International Institute for Strategic Studies, the Center for European
Reform, the Chatham House and the Henry Jackson Society in London; the German
Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP), the German political foundations, the
Bertelsmann Foundation; the FRIDE in Madrid; the Institute for Security Studies
in Paris; the Istituto Affari Internazionali in Rome; the ELIAMEP – Hellenic
Foundation for European and Foreign Policy in Athens; the Center for Liberal
Strategies in Sofia; the European Council on Foreign Relations, which has
offices in Berlin, London, Madrid and Sofia; the International Crisis Group
with multiple offices on several continents). Although think tanks mostly
operate as individual entities, a few years ago a unique network – PASOS
(Policy Association for an Open Society), now consisting of 40 independent think
tanks and spanning more than 25 countries in Europe and Central Asia was
created with the aim of achieving a bigger impact via collective activities.
There are several non-European think tanks which have significant programs
influencing the European policy community (e.g. the Washington
based the Carnegie Endowment for Peace, the Brookings Institution and the
German Marshall Fund of the United
States, which has seven European offices).

How think tanks shape EU policies?

Evaluation, analysis and research
Experts in think tanks regularly evaluate and analyze programs, projects
and policies of governmental bodies in the respective member states and/or
European agencies. Parallel to that they generate their own ideas and thought-
provoking research and analysis (published in policy papers, specialized
newsletters, magazines, articles and books all of which is often publicized in
the mass media) which aims to stimulate broad debate and eventually have an
effect on policy.

Promotion, education and advocacy
Quality think tanks have a well-developed capacity to promote their work
and reach out effectively to “those who matter”- politicians, experts and other
influential individuals and organizations. When needed, they design
individually or in cooperation with other groups various educational and
advocacy campaigns targeting the broader public. Their media skills in online
communication as well as the electronic, print and broadcast media, paralleled
with distinct expertise and credibility, make think tank analysts among the
most welcomed and influential of commentators.

Consulting and advising
Think tank staff usually have both profound knowledge of a particular
policy area and also extensive contacts in the public sector. These links are
built through the reputation of individual experts or board members, who often
have past government experience. In their own interests, national-governmental
and EU bodies regularly seek the advice of think tanks on how to develop new
policy, how to deal with challenging situations or how to improve a particular
institution or program. Think tank experts regularly assist public and private
bodies in developing their own strategies and new approaches.

Convening and study tours
Most non-ideological think tanks tend to be neutral and honest brokers and
usually produce high quality venues for policy debates. Typically, their
conferences, seminars, workshops, brainstorming sessions and other forms of
convening are attended by experts and decision makers with the aim of producing
policy relevant outcomes. Sometimes they bring around the table like minded
people, in other cases participants with opposing views. In order to allow for
the free exchange of opinion on sensitive or controversial issues, meetings
sometimes exclude the media and the public or are conducted under the so called
Chatham House rule, according to which “participants are free to use the
information received, but neither the identity nor the affiliation of the
speaker(s), nor that of any other participant, may be revealed”.

Some think tanks with foreign policy programs organize, individually or in
cooperation with partners, study tours to political centers of influence or to
less well known or problematic parts of the world. These may involve experts,
journalists and decision makers and they allow participants to meet influential
people and learn first-hand about given a geographical area or issue.

Future trends and dilemmas for think tanks in Europe

The increased complexity of the political, social, economic and security situation
in Europe (and beyond), paralleled with decreased civic participation in
political life would indicate that demand for new, policy relevant ideas,
strategies and approaches will grow. It can therefore be expected that the
influence and the numbers of entities employing practical “thinkers” with the
capacity to address the pressing issues of our time will also grow.
Particularly in the last two decades, think tanks have become indispensable
actors which have been helpful in smoothening the way for unprecedented changes
in the structure of the EU, its member states and the applicant countries.

These mostly young and small policy organizations are helping the EU to
critically re-think its own developments and relations with other parts of the
world. The good news for EU policymakers is that the vast majority of European
think tanks believe in, and actively promote the “European project”. This,
however, should not be taken for granted.

Aside from the special case of the euro-skeptics there are also numerous
instances where political, religious or business groups have created their own
media or NGO-type organizations advancing anti-liberal, and sometimes
radical-nationalist views. The explosion in electronic and audiovisual
technology allows even small, well-organized groups to have a big impact in
shaping public opinion and policy process.

A particular challenge for the image and financial viability of think tanks
in a period of global financial and economic crisis is to maintain their
independent, non-profit character, distinct from various pseudo-think tanks,
consultancies and lobby groups, which sometimes imitate and/or create think
tank-like entities which can become competitors for prestige and funds.

In the challenging period ahead, independent think tanks will need space for
creativity and critical thinking while keeping a proper distance from political
institutions. They must have the courage to upset political establishments from
time to time, even risking reductions in
grant money.

Let us hope that the new EU leadership in Brussels and the leaderships in member and
applicant states will continue working to build up relationships with these,
sometimes strange, but badly needed soft power “tanks”.

Pavol Demeš, Director of the German Marshall Fund’s Bratislava office and an ECFR council member.

This piece was first published in Europe’s World

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


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