A tale of two think tanks

February 24, 2014

Two think tanks dominate the Brussels energy landscape, however the Brussels bunch still lag behind their American counterparts

It was the best of times, it was the burst of times

Last week, while discussing the merits of a newly released ‘2013 Global Go To Think Tank Index Report’ with my colleague James, he asked me whom I considered to be the most influential think tanks in Brussels when it came to energy policy?

Immediately I responded that it was either CEPS or Bruegel, depending on the issue and angle at hand. However, as the conversation progressed I noted to my surprise, that think tanks are not as influential in driving the Brussels agenda as their US counterparts.

So what defines an ‘influential’ think tank? Why are think tanks in Brussels less impressive than in the US? And why are CEPS and Bruegel more impressive than their peers?

Having studied at an American university, where a writing policy paper in an influential think tank was deemed second only to a high political posting in a student administration, I expected that the EU versions of Brookings, Carnegie and CATO would drive the policy debate, while also acting as something like ‘stop gaps’ for politically affiliated high achievers.

Red and Green Christmas Tree LightsHowever, once in Brussels, I realized that the “think tank culture” is not as well developed as across the Atlantic. In a piece that stirred much controversy in the Brussels bubble a few years ago, the Charlemagne columnist for the Economist provided two very valid explanations 1) too many Brussels think tanks accept large chunks of their funding from EU institutions and national governments 2) Others depend on big corporate sponsors, so that the lines between research and lobbying become easily blurred.

Thus, the root of the problem from an EU perspective certainly does seem to be money, or rather the lack of ‘no strings attached’ money, which funds independent research in the USA. However, despite facing similar structural disadvantages, what is it that makes Bruegel and CEPS stand out from the crowd?

Granted both seem to be better funded than their peers. According to a Commission study conducted in 2012, CEPS and Bruegel have an excess budget of 6 and 4 million euros respectively.  (In addition to public funding, their corporate donors can be accessed here and here).

In addition, both have a diverse funding base. A diverse funding base is seen as critical, as otherwise one may end up being overly reliant on one source; and however benevolent that one may seem on the face of it, it could create trouble at some point in time in the future. Nobody likes to bite the hand that feeds it. (A diagrammatic illustration of CEPS diversified funding sources can be accessed here)

However, I would argue that it is both their manpower and relevant expertise with the policy issues at hand that raises them above the rest. With a town that features more lobbyists than Washington, knowledge of the EU Energy & Climate policy agenda and being able to adapt ones research programme accordingly, is a key component for success.

Knowledge and adaptability are the weaknesses of CEPS’ and Bruegel’s competitors, since too often the temptation to overindulge in big picture of geo-political energy issues and report on conferences supersedes the need to provide insights and analyses of issues such as the ETS, 2030 Climate & Energy Package or Fuel Quality Directive, which are relevant on the ground and which all lobbyists in Brussels require.

Indeed, a well thought and timely idea can go far (note the explosion of the TED talks series). In addition, EU policymakers are always open to taking them on board. The most striking example in recent times was the Commission’s proposal to reform the EU carbon market, published on January 22nd. The proposal was largely based on the International Emissions Trading Association’s (IETA) consultation submission calling for the creation of an EU ETS structural reserve, with the deflationary and inflationary capabilities somewhat akin to what the European Central bank has on monetary policy.

Looking ahead, while the calendar of the institutions may be increasingly bare in advance of the upcoming elections, for think tanks, the next few weeks will be crucial. This week Bruegel will be hosting the new Directorate General of DG Energy Dominique Ristori on the ‘Instruments for Energy Transition’, while CEPS will be looking at the current ‘big issue’ on the policy agenda; drivers of energy prices for energy intensive industries.

Both events promise to be timely and relevant policy discussions, dealing with issues of priority for the Brussels energy agenda.

The top 5 Brussels think tanks on energy policy

  1. CEPS: The crème de la crème of Brussels energy think tanks. Very much on the pulse of the Brussels policy agenda, CEPS has particular expertise in climate change issues such as carbon pricing, carbon leakage and the drivers of energy prices.
  2. Bruegel: More hardcore economics based than CEPS, the reputable George Zachmann tends to focus on issues such as market design, renewable support schemes and the EU ETS.  
  3. Friends of Europe: Its annual Friends of Europe Summit is probably the number one energy event in Brussels.
  4. German Marshall Fund: Coming from a foreign and security policy background, GMF is particularly strong on energy security aspects, hosts a number interesting workshops on energy security both the CEE and Baltic region.
  5. Institute Francais des relations internationals (IFRI):  More an academic think tank than an advocacy one, it has a strong team of experts, providing geopolitical energy analysis.

(Think tanks without special energy practices excluded)

Cillian O’Donoghue


What is a thinktank?

For those who are interested in analysing the definition of ‘think tank’ Steven Boucher defines them as bodies which:

  1. are somewhat permanent;
  2. specialise in the production of public policy solutions;
  3. have in-house staff dedicated to research;
  4. produce ideas, analysis and advice;
  5. communicate its findings to policy-makers and public opinion;
  6. not be responsible for government operations;
  7. maintain research freedom and independence from specific interests;
  8. not grant degrees or have training as its primary activity;
  9. seek, explicitly or implicitly, to act in the public interest.

In addition, he specifically highlights four main types of think tanks:

  1. academic think tanks (or universities without students)
  2. advocacy think tanks (which McGann prefers to call “engagement” TTs)
  3. contract research organisations
  4. political party think tanks

Source: S. Boucher (ed.), Europe and its Think Tanks: A Promise to Be Fulfilled, Notre Europe, Paris, Studies and Research, no. 35, October 2004.

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