Department of Comparative Politics

Who has heard of EU think tanks?

Marybel Perez presents her dissertation 02. December 2014 for the degree of PhD at the University of Bergen: ‘The European Union’s socialising institutions. The role of EU think tanks in EU policymaking’.

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Dissertation Summary

People have at least once heard of think tanks like Civitas in Norway, or the Brookings Institute in the US or the Chatham House in the UK. But who has heard about Bruegel, the European Policy Centre or Friends of Europe? EU think tanks aren’t popular and little is known about what they do. The reason is that they don’t have the opportunities to participate in policymaking and they have difficulties connecting with European citizens.

Perez’s research shows that EU think tanks have difficulties connecting with European citizens because EU institutions look for organisations that have characteristics different from those of think tanks. EU institutions look for organisations that represent the interests of policy actors, including the citizens, and that give the institutions information on the viewpoints of wide sectors in Europe. When organisations do not fulfill these criteria, they have difficulties showing the institutions that they are relevant and have difficulties participating in policymaking. EU think tanks do not usually represent specific interests and have resource limitations collecting information to speak about the opinion of wide sectors in Europe. The last factor is important. An authentic European public would require that organisations have lots of resources, from translating all the information think tanks produce in 24 languages to getting them published in every national media. Therefore, it is difficult for think tanks to become as popular as Res Publica or any other think tank in Norway.

Despite these difficulties, Perez finds that EU think tanks play a role in EU policymaking. EU institutions and other policy actors need think tanks. To claim legitimacy, EU institutions need to show they try to hear as many voices as possible. Knowing that organisations that participate in policymaking represent specific interests, EU institutions seek to hear the opinion of other policy actors outside the official policymaking. At the same time, policy actors that also have difficulties participating in policymaking seek different strategies to be heard by EU institutions. It is here that EU think tanks play their role as intermediaries. EU think tanks have a significant capacity to develop networks, making them key actors connecting both sides. 

This has important implications for EU think tanks. Being good networkers isn’t enough for EU think tanks to be successful. In order to keep playing this intermediary role EU think tanks need to have the skills to synthesize information, maintain high levels of transparency and foster network diversity to prevent inbreeding of ideas. These challenges are not particular for EU think tanks. These challenges are common to all think tanks that usually count on limited resources and tend to rely on grants from organisations that are at the same time customers. 



Perez is Lecturer at ESSCA School of Management in Angers, France, and TNS Parsons, Paris. She was Doctoral Research Fellow for the 6th Framework Programme ‘Eurosphere’ at the University of Bergen, Norway. Her track-record encompasses several universities in countries such as Spain, Norway, England and France.

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Marybel Perez