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March 11, 2005

Thinking Great Thoughts: Europe's destiny entrusted to a think-tank run by the continent's finest minds

Posted by Hector Boffey

A new European think-tank has been launched in Brussels with the challenging task of injecting new thinking in the area of EU economic policy. It is to be known as Bruegel (Brussels European and Global Economic Laboratory) and, according to its backers, it will attempt to match the influence of American think-tanks like Heritage and Cato in providing "out of the box" thinking. In or out of the box, it will not be lonely. There are already 36 EU-specific research institutes specialising in European policy issues, nearly all of them in receipt of public funds. But, for one reason or another, none have achieved very much. According to one of the 36, Notre Europe, which seems to spend some of its time observing the affairs of the other 35:

…they have not yet found their place in European policy making: the value they add is not perceived clearly…Overall they are perceived to have a limited impact on policy and public opinion.

Bruegel has set out to change all that. That being so, it was inevitable that our friends Maurice and Gerhard would be called in to help shape the programme and priorities of this hugely ambitious project:

Maurice, the message from the President's office is that we must make Bruegel our top priority.

Must we really, Gerhard? What on earth can we expect it to come up with?

Well, since it's a think tank I suppose it is expected to come up with thoughts.

What sort of thoughts?

New thoughts, social democratic thoughts, thoughts that enable the EU to combine growth with social justice, thoughts that get us out of the merde in which Europe is rapidly sinking.

You know perfectly well, Gerhard that there are no new social democratic thoughts.

Well thoughts that produce practical economic results, then.

You mean Bruegel is going to produce a thought that will enable Europe to reverse its declining share of global trade, boost growth, reduce unemployment, increase inward foreign investment, solve the problem of the democratic deficit, defuse the pensions time-bomb, challenge American hegemony – and all of this without any let-up in our quest for social justice! That truly would be a wonderful thought. I myself would be proud to think it!

Do try to be positive, Maurice. If American think-tanks can change the world, why can't we? Remember: British thinks played a major role in reversing British economic decline in the 1980s. Just recall the kind of trouble the Brits were in then!

Gerhard, I know more about these things than you; in fact I know more about everything than you. These think-tanks, as they were misleadingly called, were run by non-conformist outsiders who railed against the prevailing orthodoxy. Some of them were considered by their contemporaries to be near- lunatics. Anglo-Saxon society is like that: it finds a role for the anti-establishment eccentric. But continental Europe is very different. Now, tell me, who is going to run Bruegel?

Mario Monti.

Mario! The insider's insider! He has served two terms as a Commissioner. He's a member of Bilderberger. He's a member of the Trilateral Commission. He is earnest and honest, determined even, but if a new idea was sufficiently intrepid to cross Mario's mind we can be sure it would not progress very far.

Well, of course, the man running the show will be the director.

Who is the director?

Jean Pisani-Ferry.

It gets worse! I've known him for years. He was director of CEPII, he was economics adviser to Strauss Kahn and until 2002 he was President of the Prime Minister's Council of Economic Analysis. He's the academic equivalent of Mario. He's been round the block so often he must be in a perpetual state of giddiness.

He's very prolific. He has literally hundreds of monographs and learned papers to his name.

Correction: he has written one article which he re-writes at monthly intervals. This says that growth is a good thing and European's social model is a good thing and some way must be found to combine them both, and that will be a good thing, too. Unfortunately, although he has been saying this for two decades ago he still hasn't quite managed to work out how this is to be achieved.

He still hasn't squared the circle?

I am afraid Gerhard that it is in the nature of circles to resist being squared.

Do you have to be so negative Maurice? Bruegel came into being as the result of a high-level Franco-German initiative. It now has the backing of 12 European governments, 18 major corporations and it has a budget of five million euros. With that sort of money it can buy the best brains in Europe.

It has too much money and the support of too many governments! Do you imagine that governments will pay others to tell them that they have got things disastrously wrong! Will those who work for it be prepared to perform the deeds of intellectual valour necessary to reverse the entire direction of European politics? Will they be prepared to tell Chancellor Schroeder and President Chirac that they are proceeding on a course that will impoverish their countrymen and destroy their liberties? Will they be prepared to stick two fingers up at the European establishment? Will the Brussels insiders – men like you and me, Gerhard - take the risk of employing intellectual outsiders with all the dangers that such a course entails, or will they employ time-servers and mediocrities? I see from your reaction that you know the answer!

You need constantly to bear in mind one other thing, Gerhard, which is this: your country and mine have between them produced most of the world's great philosophy, art, science, music and literature. But when it comes to politics and economics our achievements have been rather less impressive; in fact some would say our contributions in these areas are responsible for some of the greatest catastrophes to befall the modern world.

Well, as always Maurice I bow to your superior insights. Would you like me to draft something to President Barroso in an attempt to reduce his very high expectations?

No, don't be absurd, Gerhard! Do you value your job? Do you wish to be sent to Lille? Aren't you concerned for the future of the many little Gerhards? No, please draft a memo saying that what is required is a post-Lisbon strategy which fully recognises that economic growth is a core value but that it must be accommodated within a new social-democratic paradigm if it is to be reconciled with the traditional root values of social justice and cohesion. Sooner or later there will be an EU Commission-Bruegel liason committee (I know because I am about to propose such a thing). And I venture to suggest that if we deal with the matter in this way, your name and mine will be on the list of its members. There will task forces to create as well as seminars, conferences, and workshops to attend, many of them in extremely congenial places. There will be a consequent increase in the departmental budget and an increase in staffing numbers. You and I, Gerhard, cannot be expected to remedy the flaws in a tradition of European social thought that goes back centuries but, at the very least, we can make the most of the opportunities that pass our way! In the meantime we can have a good lunch.

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