For a place that revolves around a big, radical idea—the “ever closer union” of Europe—Brussels is oddly bad at big, radical thinking. It is a (rare) point on which Eurosceptics and pro-Europeans agree: given the importance of decisions taken by the European Union, both the level and quality of public debate in the EU capital are depressingly low.
To Eurosceptics, the explanation is simple: the debate is as artificial as the European project itself. Too many Brussels think-tanks accept large chunks of their funding from EU institutions and national governments. Others depend on big corporate sponsors, so that the lines between research and lobbying become queasily blurred. Both forms of dependence are worsened by competition for the same pool of what Brussels considers star speakers: European commissioners, top officials and a few senior members of the European Parliament. Nobody seems able to change the default formula for Brussels policy seminars: good coffee and croissants, dull speeches and a brief exchange of conventional wisdom. The painful comparison is with Washington, DC, where the best think-tanks refuse public money, compete to set the agenda with provocative ideas, and enjoy extraordinary access to administration and Congress alike.
Pro-Europeans also fret about the lack of lively debate in Brussels (oddly, it is often livelier among the think-tanks in London). But they believe one answer is to spend more EU cash. Later this month Margot Wallstrom, the commissioner charged with selling the EU to its citizens, will unveil plans to fund new pan-European foundations, aimed at stimulating more “political” discussion of EU issues. Rather like the grand research foundations attached to German parties, these new groups would be explicitly linked to the ten European political parties conjured into life under the 1992 Maastricht treaty. Few ordinary voters have heard of even the biggest of these: the Party of European Socialists and the European People’s Party (which despite its Che Guevara-style name is actually made up of rather stolid Christian Democrats).
Mrs Wallstrom is on to something with her push for a more political debate. You can quibble about the use of public funding for party-political activities. But Brussels does need to become more partisan. Any number of promising binary debates can inspire the rival camps to fierce passions: think of immigration, the merits of free trade or whether to talk to Hamas. The trouble is that the Brussels discussion of such matters takes place either behind closed doors, in exchanges between ministers and officials, or off the record. Luring arguments into the open is hard, because Brussels is a place where the same folk must deal with each other for years, haggling their way towards policy deals. The public demolition of somebody else’s ideas is rarely a way to win friends. Yet, as Mrs Wallstrom notes, politics becomes interesting only when competing ideas are visible to voters. “Most of the time, this is a compromise machine,” she sighs.
Even so, her solution has flaws. Fledgling pan-European political parties are imperfect vehicles for pushing forward debate, with or without foundations bolted on. They are small: even the biggest have fewer than two dozen support staff. They are also broad churches that rarely match up with binary debates. And there are pronounced national differences within them. Swedish Socialists are more committed to free trade than are nominally centre-right politicians from southern Europe. When it comes to defending farm subsidies, you will struggle to find much difference between a French Socialist and a French conservative.
The German models for the new bodies, such as the Konrad Adenauer or Friedrich Ebert Foundations, are too stately to stir up arguments of the sort needed in Brussels, although the big German foundations have a good record of promoting democracy in other countries. Javier Solana, the EU’s foreign-policy boss, remembers the lifeline offered by the Friedrich Ebert Foundation when he was an underground Socialist in Franco’s Spain.
The case for debate
Johan Norberg, a Swedish free marketeer, recently quit a Brussels think-tank to join the Cato Institute, a libertarian outfit based in Washington. Too many think-tanks spend their time offering straight commentary on the Brussels machine, he says. In Washington think-tanks thrive not by reacting to the usual political process, but by supplying it with “the next big idea”. In Brussels analysts are sometimes said to be too outspoken, Mr Norberg marvels. “In Washington, if you’re not outspoken, people will not listen to you.”
Brussels think-tanks also suffer from several structural disadvantages that are hardly their fault. Americans can pass entire careers rotating between political jobs in government and in the private sector. It has been worth listening to people at think-tanks in Washington because they may soon be putting their ideas into action in the White House or the Pentagon. In contrast, EU mandarins who leave for the outside world seldom return. Donations to American think-tanks are also tax-deductible. That is not true in Brussels: indeed, many wealthy Europeans, if asked for money, retort that they already do their civic duty by paying eye-watering taxes, says one European think-tank veteran. Big money is coming, though. Things may be stirred up by the new European Council on Foreign Relations, a think-tank promoting the EU as a model for international relations, with hefty funding from George Soros, the hedge-fund tycoon, among others.
It should not take a philanthropist’s millions to get Europeans thinking. Brussels is already home to intense political debate—how could it be otherwise, when the foundations of the European project were so radical?—but the need for consensus has kept the debate largely hidden so far. Bringing it into the open might be provocative. Still, for an EU desperate to engage the interest of its citizens, it might be a good idea.