European think tanks and the European Union

5 December 2012
SERIES Think tanks: definition and terminology 17 items

The Bureau of European Policy Advisers of the European Commission has recently published a report on the current relationship between European think tanks and the European Union, edited by Antonio Missiroli and Isabelle Ioannides. The purpose of the report is to focus on the role of think tanks as opinion-shapers both regarding decision-makers and the public opinion in the EU. It points out that European think tanks are becoming a nascent public sphere, among a sample of educated and engaged citizens. Think tanks are now shaping expectations and perceptions about European policies and have more and more access to local and international media. While it is difficult to measure the scope of their influence, they have become more influential and widespread.

A think tank index is included: it lists all of the think tanks chosen for the study. The criteria applied for the index was visibility, notoriety  reputation, output and engagement in more than one policy field. Think tanks linked to political parties, universities and US think tanks based in Europe were not considered in the index because of the distinct role that they possess.  What is most interesting is that the report highlights the wide variety of think tank formats, which make it quite difficult to give think tanks one particular definition.

Two previous attempts at definition are mentioned. The first is James McGann’s index published in Foreign Policy magazine, where he distinguished global think tanks from policymakers, partisans, scholars and activists in, as the report mentions, an arbitrary manner. The second attempt is by Steven Boucher, who lays out nine criteria for European think tanks. According to Boucher, EU think tanks must be:

  1. 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.

However, he contradicts himself when trying to categorise EU think tanks into a simple spectrum. He mentions four main types of think tanks:

I. academic think tanks (or universities without students);

II. advocacy think tanks (which McGann prefers to call “engagement” TTs);

III. contract research organisations;

IV. political party think tanks.

The report points out that types I and III might have a hard time complying with criteria 2 and 5, while II and IV may be more influenced by criteria 6 and 7. Moreover, the think tanks included in this report’s index do not all fit into these categories and those that fit into category IV have been purposely left out.

Furthermore, think tanks across the EU do not have one specific origin. They also have very different purposes: some may have a quasi-academic profile; others are non-profits with an interest in advocacy; a few are quite general in their scope while others are thematic or geographically focused, etc. Finally, they depend on a wide variety of sources of funding, like membership fees, publications sales, state subsidies, grants, and donations.